'What choice do I have?': Vietnamese migrants now the largest group illegally crossing Channel to UK

"If I don't work for the gangs here, my daughters will be raped and then trafficked into prostitution": ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith speaks with a Vietnamese migrant who says he had little choice but to cross the Channel

Vietnamese migrants are now the single largest group crossing the Channel illegally, according to new government data.

It is the first time since records began that Vietnam is the nationality with the most migrants crossing on small boats.

The statistics for the first quarter of this year show 1,060 Vietnamese are known to have reached the UK, compared with 1,015 Afghanistan nationals, 610 Iranians, and 562 from Syria.

The number of Vietnamese who have crossed the Channel in just the first three months of this year is almost as many as crossed in the whole of 2023, and twice as many as the entirety of 2022.

However, an ITV News investigation can reveal some Vietnamese migrants and smuggling gangs have already been deterred from reaching the UK - a direct result of the Rwanda deportation plan.

Migrants who we know had previously tried and failed to cross the Channel by small boat have since changed their plans and gone to Germany instead because they were "scared" of being sent to Rwanda.

Our investigation has also found evidence this policy led to migrants who were already in the UK absconding from Home Office custody, specifically to escape the threat of being sent to Africa.

The UK government is unable to tell us how many migrants they lost after the prime minister formally announced his Rwanda policy last month.

Rishi Sunak has singled out a tenfold increase in Vietnamese smuggled into the UK as being the driving force behind small boat crossings reaching record numbers.

New data due to be published this week is expected to show more than 10,000 illegal migrants have already crossed the Channel this year, but the government is hoping its Rwanda policy will act as a deterrent to get those numbers down.

The first deportation flights are planned for July of this year.

The trade in humans is thriving globally, now estimated to be worth around £5 billion a year to criminal gangs.

And in the economy of people smuggling, the supply from the smugglers is meeting a desperate demand. Those migrants who are willing to risk life and liberty are proving difficult to deter.

In the migrant camps of northern France last month, we met one man at a squalid camp outside Dunkirk.

"The Vietnamese mafia gave me an ultimatum," he told us. "Either I go to the UK to work for them and pay back my debts, or they'll sell my wife's organs."

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That man has contacted us again. He is now in the UK, and on the run. He tells me the boat across was "terrifying".

"We left in the middle of the night," he says. "The engine broke half way across the sea. It was overcrowded, and people were screaming into the darkness. I didn't have a life jacket.

"Half the people didn't have life jackets. I thought we would die. But thankfully a British boat came out to save us."

He has shown us evidence that he was taken to accommodation provided by the Home Office.

Then, just two days after he arrived in the country, he says he watched as the prime minister announce his Rwanda deportation plans.

"There were about 20 of us in that accommodation. After we heard that announcement, everyone just ran away," he says.

Credit: ITV News

"We couldn't risk hanging around waiting for the British government to deport us to Rwanda."

The man then tells me about his daughters back home - aged 15 and 17 - and says the Vietnamese mafia has now turned their attention to his two girls.

"If I don't work for the gangs here, my daughters will be raped and then trafficked into prostitution."

ITV News has seen evidence to prove the gangs in Vietnam are threatening him.

He has already lost his home, now he says the gangs are threatening to sell his daughters' virginity to the highest bidder.

"The British government thinks it will be a deterrent that they might send me to Rwanda.

"They need to understand - the Vietnamese mafia definitely will hurt my family. What choice do I have? What would you do if it were you? That's why I am here. Others will be the same."

It is an unintended consequence of the Rwanda policy that migrants have absconded and gone into hiding.

But we have also seen evidence the Rwanda deportation plan is having the desired effect on some Vietnamese.

Credit: ITV News

One woman we previously met in in France who had tried and failed to get to the UK by boat has messaged us now to say she has gone to Germany instead.

"I was so scared of being sent to Rwanda," she told us. "So, I didn't dare travel to England."

Another Vietnamese man we had met in France said: "Me and the others are all so afraid of the Rwanda announcement. We don't know what to do now."

He has also now gone to Germany.

On Facebook forums where Vietnamese smugglers recruit, they announced the Rwanda policy was now official - so they're offering a new route from the UK to Ireland for anyone scared of being deported to Rwanda.

But we have found evidence many more Vietnamese are still trying to get to the UK where they have friends, family, or jobs in nail bars waiting for them.

The business operations of one of Europe's most prolific smuggling networks for Vietnamese migrants has, however, just been dealt one significant blow.

A joint-operation between the UK's National Crime Agency and a specialist police unit in France, known as OLTIM, has resulted in 16 arrests on both sides of the Channel.

All 16 are Vietnamese, and all have now been charged. Those arrested in the UK are due to appear in court in August, and have not as yet entered any plea.

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