Amid the rice paddies and villages of central Vietnam, residents have a name for the shadowy network used to smuggle their loved ones to Europe.
Translated to English, it’s called “the line,” as in a factory production line.
This illicit system of moving people across borders has become so common that everyone in the hamlet of Do Thanh in Nghe An province seems to know someone who has made the journey.
“I sent my three sons,” said Phan Van Thuong, a wiry 64-year-old grandfather with a crucifix tattooed on his chest. Two of them have already come back, he said, after they were arrested and deported from Britain.
“In handcuffs,” he added with a broad smile.
Phan sits in his living room under a large statue of the Virgin Mary wrapped in plastic, pouring shots of rice wine for visitors into tiny glasses. The room has enormous raised ceilings, and on the walls hang several large posters depicting scenes from the New Testament and huge wedding portraits of his children.
Foreign remittances from his sons, including a third who still lives in Germany, helped pay for the construction of his three-story home. Throughout the neighborhood there are many similar two-and-three story houses, apparently built within the last decade. Some appear to sit next to the owners’ original homes: single-story brick and concrete huts now crumbling and used as barns.
From the balcony, Phan points out at the surrounding rice paddies. Many of them are abandoned.
Farmers can’t make enough money growing rice here any more, he said.
Instead, young people use “the line” to make the long, dangerous and expensive journey to Europe in hopes of a better life.
Point of origin
Mimi Vu, an activist based in Ho Chi Minh City who works on issues related to human trafficking and migration, said that for many young Vietnamese, the risks of seeking work overseas are worth it because they can earn far more working unauthorized in Europe than they ever would at home.
“They’ve had such a long tradition now of people going abroad to earn money, and sending money back home, the proof is in the houses: the villages have been transformed by new houses, motorbikes, small businesses,” she said.
But a growing number of families in heavily Catholic communities like Do Thanh are reeling after the discovery of 39 bodies in a shipping container in the early hours of Wednesday morning in the British county of Essex.
British investigators are still trying to determine the identities and nationalities of the eight women and 31 men in the container, which was on the back of a truck. Each person was carrying a bag of personal belongings and many had mobile phones, which are being downloaded and forensically analyzed, police said in a statement.
Authorities in the UK initially said that they thought the dead people may have been Chinese citizens, but later backtracked as the possibility emerged that at least one of the passengers was Vietnamese. It’s not clear what informed the initial assessment.
A 25-year-old man from Northern Ireland is due to appear in court on Monday charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and money laundering. It is unclear how the suspect intends to plead, and his lawyer did not respond to CNN requests for comment. Three other people arrested have been released on bail.
A family in mourning
A stone’s throw from Phan Van Thuong’s three-story house, 58-year-old Le Minh Tuan is receiving visitors who burn incense in front of a shrine dedicated to his son.
Le is convinced his son, Le Van Ha, died in the Essex container.
“On October 21st, he called for the last time to say he’s preparing to get into a truck (to the United Kingdom),” the elder Le said.
Since then, Le said his son’s phone has gone dead. Meanwhile, he said he’s heard from sources, whom he refuses to reveal, that his son was on that final, fatal trip.
Even though the Vietnamese government has only just begun collecting DNA samples from families to begin the process of identifying victims, Le is calling on the British and Vietnamese governments to send his son’s body back so the family can hold a proper funeral.