Thirty-nine bodies found in the back of a refrigerated lorry in an Essex industrial park. Apart from shock and rage, this tragic news feels like deja vu. Almost two decades ago, in 2000, 58 Chinese people were found suffocated to death in Dover, in similar horrific circumstances. Those men and women banged on doors and screamed for their lives, the only two survivors revealed. The tragic deaths left families behind and communities back in Fujian province devastated.
Today, many of the 39 people, eight women and 31 men, are believed to have come from Vietnam, as families there desperately look for their missing loved ones.
I also felt deja vu listening to the response from British politicians and media. “Stop evil human traffickers”; “Stop international criminal networks”. I heard such phrases two decades ago from the home secretary, Jack Straw, and today his successor, Priti Patel, repeats the sentiment. While formal identification of the victims continues, Vietnamese people have mostly been portrayed as “unaware” trafficking victims sent to fill the nail bars and cannabis factories – as having no agency of their own and no control over their migratory decisions.
In reality, the Vietnamese young men and women who choose to travel on these dangerous routes only do so when they cannot come to Britain in formal ways. Having no alternatives, they contact “snakeheads” (smugglers), who are often perceived as “migration brokers” rather than criminals, who organise their transportation to Britain.
It appears that many of the 39 people may have come from the Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of Vietnam, which have been hit by economic reforms. Three decades ago, in 1986, the Vietnamese government launched the Doi Moi economic reforms, which aimed to facilitate a transition from a centralised planning to a “socialist-oriented” market economy. From the 1990s onwards, the government boasted of Vietnam’s rise in GDP – what was not said was that the growth was built upon the low-cost labour of millions of Vietnamese, toiling in processing factories and assembling products for overseas companies. The inflow of foreign investment has been a big part of Vietnam’s economic liberalisation. In recent years, it has brought cash to the high-tech processing, manufacturing, agriculture, education and healthcare sectors. Since the start of this year, Vietnam has attracted foreign direct investment of more than $1.1bn (£850m), China alone bringing in $222m.
Many of these changes have not been popular: large waves of anti-China protests happened in May 2014, in Ha Tinh and other places. And in 2018 there was popular opposition to legislation enabling special economic zones to grant land leases to foreign businesses for up to 99 years.
In 2016 Ha Tinh was also the site of the country’s worst environmental disaster, caused by a chemical spill from a steel factory, owned by a Taiwanese company, Formosa Plastics, that poisoned up to 125 miles of the northern coastline and ruined the fishing industry. Formosa Plastics was fined $500m by the Vietnamese government, but much of the compensation did not reach the affected fishermen.
The low labour cost in these provinces is the main attraction for Chinese and other foreign investors. For instance, a factory worker here earns around two-thirds of what a similar worker earns in China, and half the local population are under the age of 30.
Rather than wealth, foreign investment has brought mainly dead-end, low-paid jobs with few long-term prospects for young locals. The average wage in Vietnam is around $150 a month; in these provinces many don’t even earn that. Besides, unemployment is severe. Last year, GDP per capita in both Nhge An ($1,600) and Ha Tinh ($2,200) fell below the national average of $2,500. This is the context compelling tens of thousands of Vietnamese from these impoverished provinces to choose to migrate, to seek livelihoods for themselves and their families.
Families often depend on sons and daughters to find their way into advanced capitalist countries in the west, to work and be the breadwinners. Remittances from abroad also help sustain communities – Nghe An, for instance, brought in $225m a year, according to official estimates.
The 39 people were not “unthinking migrants” lured by traffickers, as the media has suggested. They were fighting for a future for their families, and lost their precious lives as Britain firmly kept its doors locked shut.
If the tragic deaths of these men and women truly sadden you, the best thing to do is oppose Britain’s anti-migrant policies. We need to dismantle the false categories of “economic migrants” and “genuine refugees”. Let our fellow human beings have the opportunity to live and work in the open – that is the only way forward.