Inside the people smuggling routes which Vietnamese are using to reach the UK

An ITV News investigation has revealed how Vietnamese people are being smuggled into Europe and the criminals who are benefiting from their desperation, ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reports

In Vietnam, people smuggling is a sophisticated industry and business is booming.

Tens of thousands every year are paying 'agents' with borrowed money to be smuggled abroad, with the intention of getting illegal, undocumented work at a higher rate of pay and sending money home.

It would be wrong, though, to categorise this as a 'Vietnam problem' because it is, in fact, centred around just a handful of villages in one single province: Nghe An.

You will, of course, find people being smuggled from some other parts of Vietnam, such as Quang Binh, Hai Phong or Ha Tinh. But the scale in those places is almost insignificant compared to the professional operation that has emerged in the villages of Nghe An.

ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reports from Malta. Credit: ITV News

Those villages are actually noticeably quieter nowadays - so many of the young people have been smuggled abroad to work and send money home.

One family with several relatives who have been smuggled successfully overseas told ITV News that "around 70%" of those who are capable of working in their village have already left to go abroad illegally.

The first step is to contact an agent. Many of these operate completely legally, with modern offices in the capital of the Nghe An province, Vinh City. 

What they are doing really amounts to selling a legal visa to an entry point into Europe.

Malta, Hungary, Romania and Latvia are all options we have found being advertised during our time in Vietnam.

The fees range from £15,000 all the way up to around £35,000, and the paperwork to go to these places will be completely legitimate.

The money must be borrowed, of course, from banks, relatives and loan sharks.

While these agencies are not directly smuggling anyone or anything themselves - as ITV News found out via secret filming as part of our investigation - the agents are knowingly selling these visas to people who have the intention of being smuggled onwards to work in another, third country, such as Germany or the UK.

That is where the illegal part of people smuggling begins.

The people aren't paying agents tens of thousands of pounds because they want to work in Eastern Europe; they're paying those agents tens of thousands of pounds to get them right to the door of where they really want to be.

Malta is one of a number of countries that so-called agents are advertising as an entry point into Europe. Credit: ITV News

ITV News heard one agent in the ABAY agency in Vietnam even make a promise that they could organise a residency permit for Hungary within a week and it would grant legal status to work anywhere in the EU.

These residency permits should take around five years to obtain.

ITV News contacted ABAY for a response, but they have not responded to our emails or phone calls since.

Once someone being smuggled arrives in somewhere like Hungary, they will be passed onto other gangs to take them where they really want to go. 

We have evidence in our investigation of smugglers speaking Russian with eastern Ukrainian dialects, driving Vietnamese people across Europe to France, where they were then transported in a small boat across the English Channel.

Those being smuggled take a calculated risk, and they go in the hope it can lead to a life of riches. 

In truth, there is some merit to that plan.

New homes are being built in places such as Yen Thanh - once a farming village, now dubbed 'Billionaire's Row' on account of the remittance money being sent by relatives working overseas.

It is easy to see why borrowing money to be smuggled is an attractive form of 'investment' - yes, it's high risk, but it's also potentially lucrative if it pays off.

People have a belief that if they go to wealthier countries to work hard - handing themselves over for long hours, seven days a week - it can be life changing for themselves and their family. 

To read ITV News' Correspondent Peter Smith's full blog in Vietnamese click the link here

Even if they're paid £4 an hour, it sound a lot better than labouring in a rice field for £1 a day.

If they live humbly, and if it all works according to plan, I have been told it is possible to pay off the debt within a few years and then begin saving their family's fortune. 

It's a form of self-sacrifice and they go willingly. They are, however, at significant risk of exploitation. 

Those leaving the safety of their home may believe they can trust their local Vietnamese agent, who promises them the world, but when they reach Europe they're commonly passed, and sometimes sold, between gangs of different nationalities along the way.

Women - especially young women - are at greater risk of being raped and forced into the sex industry if the gangs believe they can make more money from them that way.

Men can be forced to work on cannabis farms, where ITV News has heard evidence of gangs putting the onus on the person's family to find a replacement for them on the farm before the gangs will allow them to leave.

But even if it's not this brutal sex work or cannabis farming, the organised crime gangs know they will benefit from the cheap labour now on offer for nail bars, restaurants, and casinos. Those being smuggled will work long hours for less than the legal minimum wage.

They will also likely be crammed together with others in small accommodation, with rent deducted from their wages. They might believe themselves to be lucky to be making more money than they could at home, but they are being taken advantage of by those who are trying to make as much money as possible from their desperation.

There's another significant earner for the gangs in money transfers. 

The Vietnamese who pay to be smuggled into Europe are at significant risk of exploitation. Credit: ITV News

Anyone they smuggle to the UK will want send some of the money they earn home to their family, but they can't use official vendors because they don't have ID documents, and they can't say where their money is coming from.

So, they are once again beholden to the same crime gangs to transfer that money on their behalf. And, of course, the gangs charge for that service, taking a significant cut of the money being sent.

Given there are thousands of Vietnamese sending money via the gangs every week, this is a hugely profitable grip for the gangs to hold.

It's all part of funding a serious organised crime network. They are ruthless and they have an uncanny ability to find new, ongoing ways of profiting from people who they see as little more than a product. 

This is how they operate and it is big business.

The debt incurred by those who borrow money to be smuggled can also become a prison.

We've met people recently who paid tens of thousands of pounds to an agent, who told them they could use student visas to get into Malta legally, then travel around Europe wherever they wanted.

This was not true. On arrival in Malta, their passports were seized by police. 

Their only way out was by using fake or 'borrowed' passports - and as expected, the gangs charged them an additional fee for that service.

However, dozens have been detected by police and are now in prison awaiting deportation - those who remain are terrified about what to do next.

Going back home to Vietnam is not an option now because they would bring the debt back with them. If they try to go on into Europe for work and send money home, though, they risk being arrested and given a travel ban.

None of these options are attractive. And somehow they still must find a way to pay back the money borrowed or else their family risks losing their home in Vietnam.

The debt has become a kind of bondage between them and the smugglers.

Even if they do make it to Europe to try to reach the UK, there's the dangerous crossing of the English Channel to be overcome.

Those small dingy boats are overcrowded and poorly built. They capsize often in the sea before reaching England.

Nobody in Vietnam wants to go through the indignity of travelling like this. 

We have been told time and time again by the Vietnamese people we met how they wish there could be safer and legal routes into the UK.

They know going with smugglers is illegal, they know it could cost them their life. 

But if they stay at home, they fear poverty will haunt them forever and their debts will eventually be passed onto their children.

Vietnamese people have told ITV News that returning home is not an option. Credit: ITV News

Going abroad is their chance to transform their lives, to earn money beyond their wildest dreams. And so if the boats are the only option, they will get in without hesitation.

There is something reminiscent here about the War on Drugs.

Western governments spent billions on this 'war' that proved to be costly and, ultimately, un-winnable.

So too could it be said about the war on illegal immigration. Money is being thrown at it. Resources are being used up to create barriers and deterrents.

Nothing is working. Not even the deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in a refrigerator lorry has slowed down this trade in human cargo.

When even death is no deterrent, governments must rethink the strategy and consider a more effective way to engage with the crisis.

The current set up serves the serious organised crime gangs well. They are adaptable, they have a constant supply of people, and a demand for their product, which is why profits soar.

Meanwhile, the price being paid by those being smuggled is too high, one way or another. And the political embarrassment of failure is costly for the UK government.

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