Essex tragedy: last of ashes and bodies sent home to Vietnam

Pham Thi Tra My's final texts to her mother were about her breathing difficulties.

Cremated remains and bodies of victims of the Essex deaths have finally returned in full to Vietnam.

Seven had been cremated in the UK before the repatriation. The remainder 16 bodies will be transported from Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport to the respective provinces where the victims’ families reside.

Families scrapped together as much as US$2,900 for the bodies to be sent home. Many have waited for weeks to bid their tearful goodbyes and give their children a traditional burial. The youngest of the victims were two 15-year-old boys.

39 Vietnamese were found dead in a refrigerated truck on October 23 in an industrial park in Grays, Essex. The incident is one of many illegal human smuggling businesses that regularly ferry economic migrants or slaves of human trafficking from Asia to Europe.

Vietnam was once one of the world’s poorest countries. In less than a generation, it grew into a lower middle-income country pursuing a path of export-led industrialisation.

But the gulf between the haves and have-nots has also widened considerably.

Many of the deceased are believed to have originated from North Central Vietnam, known for its frequent cases of human trafficking.

Ten victims came from Ha Tinh province, site of a toxic dump in 2016 that decimated entire populations of fish and severely impacted the livelihood of locals. It is no surprise that the lure of better-paying jobs in the developed West becomes incredibly hard to resist.

In response to the tragic Essex incident, foreign ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang affirmed that Vietnam “strongly condemns human trafficking and considers it a serious crime”.

“Vietnam calls upon countries in the region and around the world to step up cooperation in combating human trafficking in order to prevent the recurrence of such tragedy,” she added.

25-year-old lorry driver Maurice Robinson pleaded guilty in court last week for conspiring to assist unlawful immigration. He also faces 39 counts of manslaughter.

To wipe out human trafficking though would also require curbing this problem at its source.

The US Trafficking in Persons Report 2019 recently implicated town-level Vietnamese officials for their roles in abetting this global smuggling ring.

“Complicit Vietnamese officials, primarily at commune and village levels, facilitate trafficking or exploit victims by accepting bribes from traffickers, overlooking trafficking indicators, and extorting money in exchange for reuniting victims with their families.”

Moreover, there has been evidence of police in Vietnam colluding with organised criminals and traffickers.

As such, families of victims are reluctant to report traffickers to local authorities for fear of reprisal. Victims or migrants that return home also find it difficult to integrate back into their local community.

If it is serious about putting a stop to human trafficking, Vietnam will need to battle rampant corruption by law enforcers and public officials, as well as provide legal, educational, and financial support to victims who return.

Equally critical if not more, is the longer-term challenge of pursuing more inclusive growth for all.