Vietnamese turn to traffickers to help chase fortunes abroad

Dien Thinh, Vietnam: All 39 people found dead in a refrigerated container truck in England last week were Vietnamese nationals, British police said, as three more people were arrested in Ireland and Vietnam in the sprawling international investigation into what appears to be a people-smuggling tragedy.

British detectives initially said the victims discovered near the south-east port of Purfleet on October 23 were from China, but families from Vietnam have contacted authorities there with concerns for missing relatives.

Essex Police Assistant Chief Constable Tim Smith said on Friday (Saturday AEDT) that "at this time, we believe the victims are Vietnamese nationals, and we are in contact with the Vietnamese government."

Hoang Thi Ai, mother of Hoang Van Tiep, who is feared to be among the England truck dead, hold a phone showing a photo of him in Dien Thinh village.Credit:AP

He said police think they have traced the relatives of some of the dead.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security and British police were working together to further identify the victims and will soon announce the results.

"Vietnam strongly condemn human trafficking activities, considering it's a serious crime and must be accordingly punished," she said in a statement. She said Vietnam calls on other countries in the region and in the world to strengthen activities to avoid "such a painful tragedy."

An aerial view as police forensic officers attend the scene after a truck was found to contain 39 dead bodies, in Thurrock, South England, on October 23.Credit:AP

"It's a really sad news that all 39 people are Vietnamese. I hope the authorities can confirm their names soon," said Vo Ngoc Chuyen, the older brother of Vo Ngoc Nam, whose family fears he is among the dead.

In Dien Chau district of north-central Nghe An province, where many of the victims are believed to be from, the family of Hoang Van Tiep was shocked to hear the news.

"Until they can confirm that my brother is among the dead, my family will not give up hope," his sister said. She said her family had no contact with her brother since October 22, when he told them he was on the way to England.

British police have charged 25-year-old Maurice Robinson, from Northern Ireland, with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. They say he drove the cab of the truck to Purfleet, where it picked up the container, which had arrived by ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

A man rides his bicycle past a Catholic church in the Dien Thinh village from where many of the victims came from.Credit:AP

Another man was arrested on Friday in Ireland, and two others in Vietnam.

The two, suspected of organising a people-smuggling operation in Vietnam for years, were arrested in Ha Tinh province following reports from 10 families there of missing relatives, VTV television reported.

Colonel Nguyen Tien Nam, deputy chief of Ha Tinh provincial police, was quoted as saying the suspects were directly involved in the case in which people paid smugglers to be taken to England and are now feared to be among the bodies found in the container.

Demonstrators hold banners condemning border security policies that they say drive people to risk their lives, during a vigil for the 39 truck victims in London.Credit:AP

In Ireland, a 22-year-old man was arrested on a British warrant. Essex Police said they had started extradition proceedings to bring him to the UK to face charges of manslaughter.

A spokesman for the Dublin High Court said Eamonn Harrison, of Newry in Northern Ireland, appeared in court on Friday. He was ordered detained until a hearing on November 11.

British police asked two other suspects, Northern Irish brothers Ronan and Christopher Hughes, to turn themselves in. Police said they had already spoken to Ronan Hughes by telephone.

For many Vietnamese, a job in a Western European country is seen as a path to prosperity worth breaking the law.

Residents of this small rural community in Dien Thinh fear that two cousins were among the dead in the refrigerated cargo container.

"I miss him very much," said Hoang Van Lanh, who anxiously awaited word on the fate of his 18-year-old son, Hoang Van Tiep. But he added, "That's life. We have to sacrifice to earn a better living. Tiep is a good son. He wants to go overseas to work and take care of parents when we get old. He insisted to go, for a better life."

Dien Thinh in north-central Vietnam is a coastal village with 300 households that depend on small-scale farming of peanuts and sesame and seasonal fishing. A big pink church in the village centre that marks this as a Catholic settlement is surrounded by modest homes, though there are also some new two- and three- story houses belonging to families who have members working abroad.

The village is a 15-minute drive from Yen Thanh district, a similar area where 13 families have come forward to report missing family members.

By Vietnamese standards, Dien Thinh is not especially poor, but like many rural areas, it lags behind urban regions economically. The average annual per capita income in the province where the village is situated is $1620 ($2300), compared with a national average of $US2587, according to the Vietnamese government.

Many young people head for the cities or gamble on their chances in Europe, whether out of devotion to their families, a desire to escape a life of backbreaking manual labour, or a yearning for a fancy new house.

Tiep's parents live in a one-storey brick house built three years ago. Hanging across the length of a living room wall, above a cross, is a framed print of "The Last Supper." His mother, Hoang Thi Ai, sobbed and stared blankly this week as visitors tried to comfort her. She carried her phone everywhere in the hope he would contact her.

The last texts she received from him were on October 22 – the day before British authorities discovered the truck – and said he was "on the way" to England and "please prepare the money at home" and "10 thousand 5," shorthand for the £10,500 pounds ($19,600) left to be paid to the traffickers.

Families normally pay half the trafficker's fee before the trip and the remainder when the person being transported arrives at the destination. Tiep's family was never asked for the second payment, compounding their fears he is among the dead.


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