Young, aspirational and poor Vietnamese are risking their lives to travel to Europe, taking on large debts to join well-worn trafficking routes in the hope of a better future thousands of miles from their rural homes.
The dangers of illegal crossings into Europe were laid bare this week when 31 men and eight women were found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain.
British police initially said the victims were Chinese, but it is now feared most were from Vietnam.
Many Vietnamese migrants come from just a handful of central provinces, where smugglers prey on disaffected youth lured by the prospect of overseas work.
Bored by village life and fed up with a lack of opportunity, the allure of overseas riches is enough to tempt many to embark on the risky trips.
Many belong to Vietnam’s booming, social-media obsessed population of under 30s, often following relatives or friends to the UK, France and Germany — Facebook posts from abroad and money sent home are often proof enough that the journey is worth it.
Greased by smuggling networks with links in remote Vietnamese towns and throughout eastern Europe, migrants can pay up to $40,000 for a ticket out of poverty, borrowing from relatives or taking huge loans.
“Smugglers are really saying that the UK is the ‘El Dorado’,” Paris-based migration expert Nadia Sebtaoui told AFP.
They are often promised princely salaries of up to £3,000 pounds ($3,800) a month, around three times the annual income in Vietnam’s poorest provinces.
But the reality is often far different.
Some end up owing thousands of dollars to smugglers and money lenders who front cash for the treacherous journeys. Saddled by huge debts, many face the risk of exploitation along the way.
“They really have a lack of awareness on the reality of working in Europe,” said Sebtaoui, adding that many take under-the-table jobs as manicurists or cannabis farmers, or even sex workers.
A town transformed
Just a few provinces in central Vietnam — Nghe An, Ha Tinh and Quang Binh — supply most illegal migrants, according to a report by Anti-Slavery International, ECPAT UK and Pacific Links Foundation.
The region has been largely overlooked by Vietnam’s breakneck economic growth of the past decade, and for most young people the only jobs on offer are in factories, construction or on the fields.
Meanwhile, migrant success stories ricochet across many small towns, where remittances have transformed the homes and aspirations of many.
“We live on money sent from our people abroad,” said the uncle of Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 27-year-old man feared to have died in the ill-fated truck.
In his village Phu Xuan, once a poor farming community in Nghe An province, signs of that wealth abound.
Newly-renovated brick homes have replaced shacks. Bicycles have been upgraded for motorbikes and cars, and a trendy bubble tea shop recently opened along the main road.
“The money sent from our people abroad has changed the face of this village. That’s why young ones just leave,” said Tu’s uncle, sitting in the new home his missing nephew helped to finance at a cost of nearly $13,000.
That’s a huge sum in Nghe An province, where the average annual per capita income is around $1,200, well below the national average of about $2,400.
‘I’ll be lucky’
In this part of Vietnam, it’s not hard to find someone who can help you get to Europe — for a price.
Russia is easy enough to get to — a tourist visa or fake passport often does the trick — and then criminal networks dotted across eastern Europe help migrants along, often for additional fees.
Vietnamese communities took root in eastern Europe after the Vietnam War, some moving over as part of a Soviet labour scheme, others as war refugees.
Most migrants continue their westwards journey overland, with those headed for the UK waiting in makeshift camps in northern France for truck to take them across.
For that they pay smugglers for a “VIP transfer” — a guaranteed spot on a truck billed as the more comfortable route, said Sebtaoui, who has worked with Vietnamese migrants in France.
The migrants on the ill-fated truck found this week might have paid thousands of dollars for a spot in the refrigerated trailer.
Others try their luck by squeezing themselves in the arches above truck wheels, an extremely risky passage.
But tragedy is often not a deterrent. Even if many of the 39 dead are confirmed to be Vietnamese, it might not be enough to stop future migrants from taking the same journey.
“If someone’s really desperate and if their life seems hopeless… they may still think ‘I’ll be lucky,'” said Michael Brosowski, founder of Vietnam-based anti-trafficking NGO Blue Dragon.