'We have no choice': The Vietnamese dying for a chance to work in the UK

ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith delivers a special report on the human trafficking gangs trying to bring thousands of Vietnamese migrants into the UK every year

There's a saying in Vietnam about the Nghe An province: "Chó ăn đá, gà ăn sỏi."

It means "the dogs eat rocks, the chickens eat pebbles".

It's a hot, tough place to live, and is also Vietnam's hub for the trade in human cargo.

When 39 Vietnamese were found dead in a lorry in Essex four years ago, the majority had left from Nghe An. 

ITV News met one woman whose brother was killed on that lorry - her family had borrowed £20,000 to pay the smugglers.

Even though everyone onboard died, the borrowed money must still be repaid. And so having lost her brother, her husband is now getting ready to go.

"Of course I'm scared for my husband," she said. "But we have no choice."

About 70% of the people here who are capable of working have already gone abroad. We asked where they get the money.

"We have to borrow it," her husband told ITV News.

"We borrow from relatives - if that's not enough, we borrow from the bank. If that's still not enough we borrow from a money lender or a loan shark."

We show them the crammed boats smugglers are using to cross the Channel. 

ITV News met with one man who plans to be smuggled into the UK. Credit: ITV News

Her husband said he knows it's illegal, he knows it could cost him his life. 

"But if I stay here the debt will always haunt my family, be inherited by my children, and we will all stay poor forever," he said.

"I wish there was a safe, legal way. So, if the boats are the only option, I will get in."

The key to anyone here actually going to the UK is what's locally known as 'the agent'.

Most never set eyes on the agent - they pay intermediaries, while agents organise everything from the shadows.

But there are 'representatives' here - those who offer 'helpful advice' on how to be smuggled.

We are given a seat at the table at a genuine meeting for someone interested in going abroad, and we record on a hidden camera.

What we hear is a claim that the smuggling operation is now able to get people directly into the UK - cutting out the need for boats and lorries. 

'As much as fleeing from poverty they're running towards the idea of a genuine better life'

"That was impossible until this year," can be heard on the recording.

We are shown the proof: a video of what appears to be a young Vietnamese male arriving in London.

He's apparently 15-years-old and currently working in a nail bar.

Someone asks: "What about the police?"

"They won't go looking for him," is the response.

Debt and poverty are the drivers of the people smuggling industry in Nghe An - one of Vietnam's poorest provinces. 

Unemployment is high in the villages, where labourers can toil for less than a pound a day in the rice fields.

And, in truth, smuggling can work - relative riches can await those who are successfully taken to the UK.

People can work for less than a pound a day in Vietnam's rice fields. Credit: ITV News

We go to one place that was once was a farming village, now known as Billionaire's Row.

New houses built from remittance money tower over any traditional homes that are left. Standing tall, like billboards advertising what the smugglers can offer.

Most families with someone abroad tell me they are able to pay back the debt within three to five years by working long hours, seven days a week, and living in ‘humble’ accommodation.

After that they are able to send more money back home and this is when it starts to become genuinely lucrative.

We then learn that those who pay to be smuggled even get language and job training before they leave Vietnam. 

They'll be expected to go straight to work in their new country, to repay their family's debt.

We've been able to get inside one of the biggest training academies - where 17 to 19-year-olds are getting ready for the jobs that await them.

It is highly organised, professional, and there is already a production line of the next ones preparing to go.

One girl told ITV News she wants to work in England.

"I want to [have] a shop," she said. That's her dream.

One Vietnamese farming village has now had the name Billionaire's Row coined for it. Credit: ITV News

For those who can't afford the direct path to the UK, there are cheaper, riskier routes.

One of our contacts who made the journey kept a video diary of his entire journey from Vietnam. 

He arrived in Hungary on a work visa organised by the Vietnamese smugglers.

But it's once they're in Europe that the Vietnamese get passed between smugglers, and exploitation is rife. Young women are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.

In footage obtained by ITV News, a confused voice is heard asking in the back of a smuggler's van, "do any of you know what country we're in?".

"No idea," is the reply.

Their smugglers speak Russian with a Ukrainian dialect - they're heard talking about the next vehicle they'll collect.

There are legal 'agents' in Vietnam, who are organising legitimate visas for work and studying abroad. 

But one legal agent, Hien, told ITV News he's trying to compete with organised crime gangs, who offer something he can't: a way into the UK.

"The UK is the strictest and most difficult for us to get workers to," he said. 

"But it's also a kind of promised land for Vietnamese workers. It's just so difficult to go legally.

"People are going anyway and they are working. Why not create more legal routes for them to go safely?

"We know the UK has a shortage of workers in social care and you have an ageing population. We could do those jobs. 

"The lack of legal opportunities is just pushing people to smugglers and their dangerous routes."

Before leaving Vietnam, we went back to the couple who had paid smugglers already - the husband has just been told to get ready to travel.

Everything is packed into one bag.

Hien is advocating for more legal routes, which Vietnamese people can safely use to arrive in the UK. Credit: ITV News

"Do you think it'll be difficult to get a job when you go abroad?" he's asked.

"Very difficult," he replies. "Especially at first it'll be hard to find work."

There's time for some final family photos - will he see his children again? 

Then we are there the moment the call comes - it’s time.

The UK continues to warn people like this they'll be arrested, deported, or put on to barges if caught. But what threat is that in Nghe An? When even death is no deterrent.

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