06 November 2019
- Deaths of Vietnamese migrants will prompt crackdown on human trafficking and increased scrutiny of firms’ supply chains and labour practices
- Increased international attention on risks of people smuggling, including labour exploitation, will not lead to sanctions or other punitive actions against Hanoi
- Government crackdown will be short-lived, temporarily raising anti-government sentiment in central provinces, but not leading to large-scale protests
Vietnamese police said on 4 November that they had detained eight people in Nghe An Province, in addition to two others in Ha Tinh Province on 1 November, in connection with the discovery on 23 October of the bodies of 39 people in a lorry in southern England. This followed UK police saying on 1 November that they believed all 39 of those found were Vietnamese nationals, having previously believed they were Chinese. Meanwhile, Vietnamese officials arrived in the UK on 4 November to assist with identifying the victims. Separately, on 30 October a court in Ha Tinh sentenced a man to five years in prison for organising illegal emigration to Taiwan, while on the same day police in Thua Thien-Hue Province detained three people on suspicion of illegally sending Vietnamese citizens to the US.
Although the incident in the UK is unusual in terms of the high number of deaths, people smuggling from Vietnam to Europe is relatively common, with thousands attempting the journey illegally each year. This is primarily driven by poverty and high unemployment, particularly in the central provinces, which encourage locals to seek work overseas. Indeed, many of the victims in the UK case appear to have come from the central, and predominantly rural, provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, where GDP is significantly lower than the national average. In addition, while many journeys are made voluntarily, many also involve human trafficking, as UK police suspect was the case last month. This has prompted growing international concerns about related human rights issues, and in July the US State Department downgraded Vietnam’s ranking in its 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, and accused the Vietnamese Government of failing to adequately combat trafficking.
The Government largely supports emigration for work, as this entails significant economic benefits. According to the World Bank, overseas workers will have sent as much as USD 16.7 billion back to the country in remittances – usually to their families – throughout the course of 2019, representing around 6.4% of Vietnam’s GDP. However, the same financial motives that encourage legal emigration are also driving an increase in illegal people smuggling, which the Government has struggled to address, as demonstrated by the US trafficking report. That said, the significant international media attention on the UK case will have increased pressure on Hanoi to be seen to be responding to the problem, which will have partly driven its close cooperation with the UK authorities and series of arrests since the incident. Further arrests are therefore likely in the coming weeks, in addition to increased scrutiny of individuals or firms that could be seen to be contributing to illegal migration, either directly – such as logistics firms operating along major smuggling routes – or indirectly, such as firms with local partners that may be contributing to push factors such as low wages or poor labour rights.
The incident and subsequent crackdown by authorities will also increase the risk of protests or similar unrest in Nghe An and Ha Tinh, particularly as these regions already have higher levels of anti-government sentiment than other regions in Vietnam, and locals may blame the Government for failing to ensure higher wages, or effectively policing smuggling gangs. However, significant unrest is unlikely, and any protests that do emerge will be small-scale and localised to rural areas, with little impact on business operations. Moreover, the Government will be unwilling to pursue an extended crackdown. This is in part because international criticism is unlikely to include punitive measures such as sanctions, which might otherwise incentivise more concerted action, and in part because the economic benefits to successful migrants will continue to provide individuals and criminal networks with a major incentive to evade legal constraints, thus reducing the effectiveness of any government action.