Yesterday two men were found guilty of organised immigration crime and the manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese people found dead in a lorry last October. These individuals were part of an international people smuggling operation making huge profits from desperate people, who were in search of a better life for themselves and for their families. Sadly, this tragic incident is all too typical of the way in which criminal gangs exploit vulnerable people.
Last October, we were all shocked to hear about the deaths of so many people in such awful circumstances. This case illustrates the perilous nature of the journeys vulnerable migrants make to the UK. Parents and children looking to improve the lives of their families or young people hoping for a better future might begin their journey as a smuggled migrant, but they can become exploited at any point. Some may be trafficked as they make their way either through China or Russia and then Europe. Others will be trapped in exploitative work owing thousands of pounds in debt bondage to their unscrupulous employers.
Nearly 900 Vietnamese people were identified as potential victims of modern slavery in 2019 and I wanted to understand more about the factors and the drivers that are behind this. Back in October 2019 the only research that was available to better understand the dynamics of Vietnamese nationals’ exploitation en route to, and within, the UK had been published two years earlier in 2017. While this report was useful, I needed a current assessment of the situation. I therefore commissioned the National Assessment Centre at the National Crime Agency (NCA) to undertake a review of the nature and scale of modern slavery linked to Vietnamese people. Importantly I wanted to understand the impact on victims, but I also wanted to understand the broader impact of irregular migration and the subsequent exploitation of Vietnamese people in the UK. I hoped that a full assessment by the NCA would help to develop policy, strategy and operations both internationally and in the UK.
The NCA have provided me with a high level summary of their findings which I am publishing along with this blog. The assessment concludes that the majority of Vietnamese irregular migration to the UK, including that which results in exploitation, is perpetrated by organised immigration crime groups and offenders. Criminals artificially inflate the cost of travel - tens of thousands of pounds - and this puts the migrants into the most severe debt bondage. They find themselves working in nail bars and restaurants for very low pay and poor working conditions, and unable to leave. Similarly migrants will fear detection and potentially being returned to Vietnam because it will result in a substantial financial loss to them and their families. Organised crime gangs may smuggle people or they may traffick them. In either case the harm to the individual is considerable.
We must examine the ways these organised criminal groups operate across international boundaries to inform effective law enforcement collaboration. We also need to focus on preventing people from taking these dangerous journeys and how to best protect those who will continue to do so. I have been encouraged by the cooperation between law enforcement in the UK and with law enforcement in Vietnam, and closer engagement with the Vietnamese government remains an important part in tackling this difficult issue. Responsibility for the deaths of these 39 people rests with those convicted of the most serious crimes, but it is the responsibility of all of us to learn from this case. We must focus our efforts to ensure that such a tragedy cannot be repeated.