Cannabis, nail bars and deportation: Dark reality for Vietnamese people smuggled into the UK

ITV News have investigated Vietnam's people smuggling industry - starting in villages where these journeys begin, and following the route taken through Europe. Peter Smith reports

People smuggling is an underground industry, but in the UK we have found it is thriving in plain sight.

In nail salons on high streets across the country, an ITV News investigation has gathered evidence of workers being brought here illegally from Vietnam.

In undercover filming, one nail worker is asked: "Do you have legal status or paperwork for here?"

"No, not yet," is the reply.

Vietnam's people smuggling industry starts in many small villages with the promise of riches to be found in Europe. Credit: ITV News

Thousands are still risking their lives each year, crossing the Channel on small boats, hoping for a better life.

An entire industry is being built in the UK on the back of their desperation and, despite the best efforts of the government promising to stop the small boats, business is booming.

"I came here just six months ago," another nail worker tells us.

He says he arrived in a small boat.

"The journey was about six hours from France to the UK."

But these nail bars are merely what can be seen on the surface.

Those who fall into debt, or older men unable to get jobs in nail salons are forced into cannabis farming. Credit: ITV News

ITV News has been investigating Vietnam's people smuggling industry - starting in the villages where so many of these journeys begin, and following the route taken through Europe. 

At the English Channel, they have the option of going on a boat or to hide in the cabin of a lorry.

Taking a small boat is cheaper, but more dangerous - we hear of 45 to 55 people crammed into a single crossing.

Our contact says he borrowed £20,000 from loan sharks to pay the gangs that smuggled him.

We first met in Vietnam and he told me he would start repaying the debt once he set up his dream life in the UK.

Now we meet again, four years later, he tells me about the horrifying reality of his life in Britain.

'They locked the door and left me. For a year, I was in that house, never allowed outside'

"I was taken to a house that was being used to grow cannabis," he says. 

"The men there told me my job was to water the plants until I had paid off my debt.

"They locked the door and left me. For a year, I was in that house, never allowed outside."

Cannabis farming is a more sinister side to this trade, usually for those with a lot of debt or for older men who are unable to get jobs in nail salons.

Houses across Britain have been converted into drug factories by Vietnamese gangs - they are organised and exploit the men who are put to work.

"I wasn't paid a salary," our contact tells us. 

"I have children back home and they are relying on me to send money. One day I had a chance to escape so I ran. 

"There's nowhere for me to go now - I can't ask anyone for help or I could be deported.

'One day I had a chance to escape, so I ran': Anonymously speaking to ITV News, one man said that he is more scared of the gangs who smuggled him than the UK government

I tell him the UK government wants to stop the small boats - and ask if he's scared of deportation. 

"I'm more scared of the gangs catching me than the police. The gangs have killed people before.

"But I did hear about the Rwanda deportation plan. That would be terrifying.

"Some Vietnamese might be deterred by that threat, but surely the UK government would be more humane. 

"You need workers in your country, so just let me work."

Despite disclosing that we were applying illegally, an ITV News contact was offered £700 a week to work 60-hours in a nail bar. Credit: ITV News

In another nail bar, one man tells us he has a friend who lied about being under 16 so he could remain in the UK. 

"I talk to him frequently, and I tell him how to act [more childish]."

He advises his friend to do things like asking for sweets and toys, so he appears younger.

But he is a Vietnamese adult, now living with a foster family in the UK, pretending to be a child.

The illegal workers in the nail bars also gave us advice on how to find jobs.

They tell us about forums on social media - one we see uses a code to advertise smuggling journeys. 

"33" is the French dialling code; "44" is the UK, so "33-44" means they are looking for people trying to get from France to the UK.

Employers trying to recruit also post their adverts on these forums. We find several that explicitly say, "you don't need any legal paperwork".

Social media posts outwardly offer smuggling journeys. Credit: ITV News

We call one of the numbers - a job in a nail bar near London offering 60 hours a week.

"I just arrived here recently, I came here by boat," we tell the woman who answers. She says that's not a problem.

The UK government response is promising to "stop the small boats", and there are proposals to increase fines for businesses caught employing illegal workers.

The PM has said he will introduce 'emergency legislation' after the Rwanda asylum plan deemed unlawful. Credit: PA

But their own data also shows the number of people being trafficked and smuggled into the UK from Vietnam has not come down - it's just that fewer victims are now coming forward to get help.

This illegal trade in human cargo is not slowing down.

It is profitable for the crime gangs, and the UK remains a prime destination - irresistible to impoverished Vietnamese people who believe they can have a better life here.

The UK government's response is to be more aggressive in tackling the criminals of the industry.

But as we have uncovered, this approach can have the opposite effect: and where victims are too scared of deportation to ask for help, their fear keeps them in the grip of gangs that continue to profit from their hopelessness.

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