‘Billionaire village’ to a ‘canoe’ across the Channel: The deadly migrant routes from Vietnam to Europe

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It’s a bizarre sight. After hours of winding through paddy fields full of farmers toiling in the searing heat, I’ve arrived at what looks like a Disneyland tribute to Rome.

It’s a shock of golden gates and palatial mansions, framed by statement statues and Renaissance pillars. This is Billionaire Village – a place once poor, now crowded with lavish buildings built with money sent back by those who have left to work overseas.

This is 'Billionaire Village' - a place once poor, now a testament to the hard work of those who left here to work overseas
Image:
‘Billionaire Village’ in north central Vietnam

Thousands of Vietnamese nationals every year head to Europe in search of this kind of wealth, pursuing legal and illegal routes. More than a thousand crossed the Channel on boats in the first quarter of this year alone, according to government data. That’s almost as many as made the crossing in 2023, and up from 125 people on the same period last year.

Family is at the heart of Vietnamese culture and people will do all they can to support their loved ones. Many pay for legal work visas to countries like Hungary, where there are labour shortages in sectors like manufacturing. But the path from Vietnam to Europe can be costly, murky and even deadly. Unscrupulous agents often charge exorbitant rates, even for official visas, which can lead to heavily indebted migrants being left at the mercy of an international web of people smugglers.

An advert for European travel in Son Thanh
Image:
An advert for European travel in Son Thanh

‘They wanted to help make his dream come true’

In 2019, the perilous conditions in which some migrants have travelled were exposed, when 39 Vietnamese people died after suffocating in a container en route from Belgium to Essex. At least three of those who died came from Do Thanh, the rice farming community in north central Vietnam, where I am now. Behind the doors of these grand houses, families still struggle with their grief.

Inside the home of Nguyen Thi Nhung, 60, incense burns in front of a makeshift shrine to mark the recent death of her husband. Five years ago, her son, 32-year-old Le Van Ha, a father of two, was among the victims of the Essex lorry deaths. His wedding picture hangs proudly above the staircase. It was his dream to get to Britain, his mother says, tearfully. His family borrowed a huge sum of money to pay an “agent” to help him, and they’re still paying it off today, his cousin, Le Van Tan, says.

Le Van Ha, 32, died in the 2019 Essex lorry incident
Image:
Le Van Ha, 32, died in the 2019 Essex lorry incident

“My family still owes a lot of money,” he says. “It costs 1 billion Vietnamese Dong for him to get into the UK [about £31,000]. When he passed away they had to start paying that back. They just wanted to help him to make his dream come true.”

Le Van Ha’s sister, Le Thi Hoai, is concerned about the number of people leaving this village and risking their lives to get to the UK. “In the countryside, there are hardly any jobs. That’s why they ignore the risks…. They know there are dangers… but they go to change their lives.”

Nghe An province in north central Vietnam
Image:
Do Thanh, Nghe An province in north central Vietnam

‘London is ahead – we must keep pushing forward’

So, what’s driving the rise in Vietnamese nationals crossing illegally into the UK? My search for answers started online. I found some migrants openly posting their journeys on Tik Tok. A caption alongside one reads: “London is ahead, so we must keep pushing forward.”

I also found message boards online, where both legitimate agents and what appear to be people smugglers, advertise work opportunities abroad. An advert offering a passage to England via France and Hungary caught my eye. A contact number was listed, alongside a note that applications would be received in Vinh, the region’s capital city, which is now full of houses and shops built from the rewards of migrant work.

Posing as a British expat interested in getting a nanny to the UK, I called the number. A man answered and started detailing how the illegal journey, which he said would cost me about £20,000, would work. He was strikingly unguarded, saying he had got 53 people to the UK last year. The route he was proposing exploits a legal work visa scheme in Hungary but he says nobody would actually work – it’s just a ruse to get into Europe and eventually the UK.

The agent said he got 53 people into the UK last year
Image:
The agent said he got 53 people into the UK last year

I had an address in Vinh, so I headed there and made enquiries. Five minutes after our first phone call, he arrived at the small stall where I was sitting. He showed me pictures on his phone of 20 Vietnamese people camped in a forest, who he claimed to have helped reach Britain.

The journey from Vietnam to England, he said, would take about seven to ten days. After spending a few days in Hungary, his customers are picked up and taken to France on a bus or train. From there, a “canoe” transports them to the UK. Beyond that, he wouldn’t tell me which other countries they cross through or how they travel. When I asked him how big the canoe is and expressed fears about peoples’ safety, he was dismissive.

“It used to be dangerous, but now it’s safe,” he claimed. “We use canoes to cross the Channel, which isn’t far.” On his last trip he said “there were 15 people and no one died.”

He showed pictures of the type of boat he said was used to get from France to the UK
Image:
He showed pictures of the type of boat he said was used to get from France to the UK

He then showed examples of Hungarian work visas he claimed to have secured for customers, in the passports of Vietnamese nationals. These were followed by pictures of the type of boat we would take from France to the UK. It looked like a stock online image of a speed boat moored by a Greek island, rather than the flimsy rubber dinghies used in most illegal Channel crossings.

In his mind, it was much safer going by boat than in a container. I asked what would happen if the police intervened. “The lawyers will help if they’re arrested,” he insisted.

Did he ever worry that the people he was taking huge sums of money from might die, I asked. “I just help them get where they want,” he said. “I don’t force them to go there.”


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‘There’s a lot of sexual abuse’

For those migrants who reach the UK, life can be tough. Many end up working in restaurants, nail salons and cannabis farms, with little control over their lives.

“The UK is where the heaviest of the exploitation takes place,” said Mimi Vu, an anti-trafficking expert. Explaining that as Britain is the final destination, it is where the human trafficking of migrants occurs. “You have physical beatings and slavery. They’re locked up and not allowed to go anywhere. For women and girls, there’s a lot of sexual abuse.”

Vietnamese migrants arrive in Calais
Image:
Vietnamese migrants arrive in Calais

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Framing those who arrive on British shores simply as “illegal migrants”, Mimi said, “misses the context of why the Vietnamese end up in the UK in the first place.” The latest surge in arrivals to these shores, she explains, is likely the product of people who started their journeys six months ago from Vietnam. While Hungary’s work visas are the target for corrupt agents, previously it was study programmes in Malta. Soon, it may be somewhere else.

Mimi also points out that some migrants do start out working legally, plugging labour shortages in countries, only to find themselves not making as much money as they hoped and ending up pushed into taking more dangerous forbidden routes to pay off the money they owe.

I think of how families like Le Van Ha’s have ended up in crippling debt after hoping his journey would change their lives for the better. How instead that journey can rob people of their lives and basic freedoms.

Five years on, the tragedy in Essex has not deterred people coming from Vietnam. Despite the dangers, it’s the reward not the risk that drives them forward.

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