3 November 2019 - The number of victims of people smuggling is growing. Every year, thousands of illegal immigrants try to enter the United Kingdom through European ports. Stories and pictures of those who died in Essex are leading investigators down a trail that leads to France.
Every year, thousands of migrants try to enter the United Kingdom illegally through European ports, usually hiding in vehicles.
The latest case came to light two days ago when Belgian police discovered 12 men hiding inside a refrigerated lorry in a parking lot near a highway in Antwerp province. The agents rescued 11 Syrians and one Sudanese and handed them over to immigration officials.
On 23 October, British customs officials discovered the bodies of 39 people in a refrigerated lorry in Essex (south-east England). The vehicle had arrived in in the United Kingdom from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Its driver is now charged with manslaughter, human trafficking, illegal immigration and money laundering.
Investigators believe the victims were migrants from Vietnam or China, who were trying to enter the UK illegally. It is not yet clear how they died, whether they froze or suffocated. Refrigerated lorries are often used because it is easier to bypass heat scanners during border checks. The macabre discovery in Essex brought to light the growing number of Vietnamese and Chinese nationals trafficked into British territory.
According to the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), Vietnamese featured more than any other nationality bar British and Albanians in modern slavery with 702 cases in 2018.
At the same time, the number of Chinese victims soared by 50 per cent with 451 Chinese people passed on to the agency in 2018, including 17 children, up from 293 in 2017, putting China now in fourth place.
At least 25 of the eight women and 31 men who died entering the UK through the small cargo port of Purfleet in Essex have now been identified as coming from Vietnam, many from the same village in the north of the country. The nationalities of the others have still not been ascertained.
Essex police have declined to confirm that the few documents found on some bodies were fake Chinese passports. However, the fact that it initially identified the victims as Chinese has raised questions about the involvement of Chinese triads in trafficking.
People smuggling, and the associated drugs and illegal sex trades are multibillion-dollar businesses in the UK. According to experts, the journey from Vietnam to Europe costs between US,000 and US,000, a figure confirmed by families of some of the 39 deceased.
The cost of the journey comes on top of the debt victims already contract, which they are expected to pay back via work they are forced to do.
According to the British Home Office, most Chinese women smuggled into the country end up in massage parlours and brothels. Chinese women are now the largest group in female immigration detention with 420 detained in 2018.
Stories and photos of those thought to have died in the refrigerated lorry found in England last week often lay a trail back through France, which is a bottleneck in the smugglers' network.
France is seen as a springboard to London, but while it is easy to get to France from Germany, Belgium or even Poland, it is much harder – and more expensive – to make it from here to the UK.
For Thi Hiep Nguyen, one of France's leading experts on Vietnamese trafficking, “It's quicker if they can find a truck that's going directly from Belgium or Germany, and they can avoid Paris. But only the richest can afford to go that way.”
The 39 victims in Essex could not pay for the most expensive kind of crossing, Hiep explained. They did not have that kind of money. They paid with their lives instead.