Since the Essex lorry tragedy that killed 39 Vietnamese people last year, an ITV News investigation has been tracking the international crime gangs that smuggle people into the UK.
We can now reveal how they are still operating, and that they are still targeting desperate people in Vietnam specifically, with a web of lies and hollow promises that a life of riches awaits them in the UK.
We found smugglers advertising openly on Facebook, under the guise of offering lucrative jobs in Europe under ‘labour exchange programmes.’
However, these jobs are being ‘sold’ for huge fees, and covers the cost of dangerous routes - we even found some openly admitting that their services are entirely illegal.
The people who enquire about jobs are expected to borrow money from loan sharks charging huge interest rates so they can afford to travel now. In some cases, the smugglers offer the loans themselves, or offer an introduction.
This creates a ‘debt bondage’ - those being smuggled will be expected to work illegally, both during the journey and after they arrive at their destination, until the debt is cleared.
We found evidence of smugglers promising that it will be “easy” to earn several thousand pounds a month working in nail bars in the UK, so clearing the debt will be done swiftly. They say that within a few years it will be possible to send life-changing sums of cash home to family in Vietnam.
Smugglers tell ITV News how they bring people into the UK
This is how people smuggling works - it is sold to people in poverty as a smart investment: borrow money now and reap the dividends later, changing your family’s life.
But the smugglers go to great lengths to hide the reality of the risks involved.
As part of our investigation, ITV News set up a Facebook profile pretending to be Vietnamese and asked those who were advertising jobs if they could get us to the UK.
Within an hour, four smugglers had been in touch.
They sent us evidence of UK visas they said they had processed before, and quoted a price of $38,000 - almost £30,000 - per person for the whole trip from Vietnam to the UK.
We then arranged a phone call with one of the smugglers in Vietnam who spoke to a Vietnamese producer working for ITV News and pretending to be interested in working in the UK.
“The next earliest trip we have is leaving Vietnam at the end of January,” the smuggler told us. “I already have five or six other people going on that journey.”
“You would have two other girls - one from Ha Tinh and one from Quanh Binh going with you,” he continues. “We will transit via Doha. Then Hungary, then to France. We will have to wait one or two days in France, but the whole trip takes less than two weeks. It might be as little as a week, and then you’ll be in the UK.”
The smuggler brags that he has taken hundreds of Vietnamese this way before, and flatly denies there is any danger.
Wife of Vietnam 39 victim tells ITV News about her plans to come to the UK
Our producer raises the Essex lorry tragedy, saying, “After those 39 people died last year, I was a bit afraid to go.”
The smuggler replies, “No. We don’t use any lorries like that. You will be hidden in the boot of a car, or we can arrange a taxi for you. You won’t be let down.”
This kind of empty promise was similarly made to the victims of the Essex lorry tragedy. The father of one of the 39 killed told me his son Hung had also been given a “guarantee” the smugglers would take him to the UK by taxi, and that no lorries would be involved.
We have learned this is still a common ruse.
“Once they are in France and waiting to get into the back of a lorry, there is nothing they can do,” says Mimi Vu, an anti-human trafficking campaigner based in Vietnam.
“They can’t demand their money back. They are just in that situation where they have to get into the back of a vehicle and that’s how they get transported into the UK.
“So it doesn’t matter what’s promised to them back here in Vietnam. They are promised the world - everything’s perfect, everything’s safe. The reality of what happens never changes.
Mimi also says there is a perception in Vietnam that the 39 who died in a lorry in Essex were simply ‘unlucky.’
“We still hear people saying those 39 people were taken in lorries because they went for a cheap option, and that if they had paid even more money they could have been taken ‘first-class’ in a car,” she tells us.
“What happened in Essex has not stopped people in Vietnam from wanting to go.”
ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith explains how people smuggling operations work
We witnessed this cycle of despair when we returned to Nghe An to meet the wife of Nguyen Dinh Tu, one of the 39 found dead in Essex when he tried to reach the UK.
Now a widow and a single mother, Hoang Thi Thuong, has inherited her husband’s debt to the loan sharks, owing close to £30,000.
This was money Tu had to borrow to pay the smugglers, and his family was assured he would be given a job in a nail bar to pay it back.
Thuong not only lost her husband but is now left to find ways to repay the money lenders by herself.
Over the last year she has been training to paint nails - the same job her husband had prepared to do in the UK.
“If we could have a stable job and take care of our children here, no one, including me, would want to leave,” she tells ITV News.
“But we have no stable income. So I really want to go to the UK now - first to go to the place where my husband was, and say a prayer for him. Then, if there is a legal way for me to work abroad, I want to go.”
Her desperation is what the people smugglers prey on.
Back in the UK, we received messages from another smuggler promising he can get us work in nail bars and fast food in the UK. He claims the salary will be as much as £3,000 a month.
For context, that’s almost 10 times the average salary of a worker in Vietnam and so it is attractive - but like so many of their promises, it’s almost certainly not true.
He also mentions the prospect of a job in farming - meaning farming cannabis.
These people smuggling gangs are known to have links with drugs and terrorism - their profit from people fund a whole enterprise of criminal operations in the UK and around the world.
We asked the UK Home Secretary about our investigation.
“I have seen [these adverts on social media] as well,” says Priti Patel MP.
“We have campaigns that are taking place right now as well alongside social media companies. I would say to them all, they need to look hard at themselves in terms of the content that they are putting online and I would say that as Home Secretary, not just on the issue of illegal migration, but on so many other issues as well; such as child abuse, child sexual exploitation and many other crimes that we see taking place.
“I have been engaging with them throughout the year, I will continue to work with them, but I will also urge them as well to look hard at themselves, look hard at the platforms that they have and at the type of information and data they are putting out there, because quite frankly much of this is fuelling appalling criminal activity.”
We also asked the UK’s National Crime Agency about what we have uncovered.
“It is shocking how crime gangs can operate so openly in society,” says Miles Bonfield, Head of Organised Immigration Crime Operations at NCA.
“We are absolutely committed to finding every opportunity we can to deny that platform to them, to disrupt their criminal business, and to attack them.
“However, we are very clear social media organisations need to do more. We want them to move faster because there are lives at risk.”
In response to the allegations that people smugglers are openly operating and advertising on Facebook, a spokesperson for the social media company told us, “We are investigating the pages and accounts brought to our attention.
“People smuggling is illegal and any ads, posts, pages or groups that co-ordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook. We work closely with law enforcement agencies around the world including Europol to identify, remove and report this illegal activity."
The faces of the 39 who died in Essex have now been seen around the world, but many, many more still come from Vietnam - hidden in lorries, then working in murky underground industries.
They are the invisibles in our communities.
However, as we have uncovered, the international crime gangs that profit from this misery are continuing to thrive.