HANOI – They borrowed thousands of dollars to fund their children’s illegal trips to Europe, and now the Vietnamese parents of missing migrants feared dead in the U.K. have no idea how to pay off the crippling loans.
Their kids planned to send back money after getting hoped-for jobs in the U.K., where 39 people were found dead in a truck last week.
Families in central Vietnam think their loved ones might have been in the refrigerated container, leaving behind mountains of debt borrowed from relatives or credit unions.
The money was handed over to smugglers for flights, fake passports and truck rides into Europe, a prime destination for migrants escaping remote villages and dreaming of better lives abroad.
Some of their children were already working in Europe, sending hundreds of dollars back every month to families in an impoverished part of Vietnam where most people are farmers, fishermen or factory workers.
“We still owe nearly $8,600,” said Nguyen Dinh Gia, who believes his son Nguyen Dinh Luong was in the truck found in the industrial outskirts of London.
The family borrowed from relatives to finance Luong’s trip, which took him to Russia then France where he had lived since 2018, working as a waiter.
He had been been sending back between $250 and $430 home a month to make good on the loan, promising his family he would find work to send more.
He hoped he could earn more money in the U.K. and asked his family to find another $14,000 to pay smugglers when he arrived.
But they don’t think he made it and no one has called for the fee.
Gia says he’s “lucky” the loan is interest-free, but still worries about scratching enough money together to repay it.
“We are farmers, we have nothing to do. We survive off of our children now,” said Gia, whose seven other kids are still in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s central provinces have long been locked in poverty — battered by environmental disasters, lacklustre development, and unpredictable weather linked to climate change that has hit people hard.
In Ha Tinh, the per capita annual income is $2,200, below the national average of nearly $2,600. In neighboring Nghe An, where many of the missing migrants also come from, it’s just $1,200.
Poverty often forces families to seek help from local state-run credit funds, which are relatively common across rural Vietnam and provide easy access to low-interest loans.
Some use the cash to open shops or build houses. Others like Hoang Lanh use it to send their kids abroad.
He paid smugglers to send his son Hoang Van Tiep to Europe, landing in France a year ago. Now he fears his son was one of those found in the truck.
Though Tiep regularly sent money earned from his dishwashing job, his father still owes the bank $4,300.
“We don’t know how we’re going to pay back the debt. I don’t have any plan,” said the fisherman in Dien Chua commune, who brings home barely more than $200 a month.
Hoang offered his land title to secure the money he borrowed, since he has few other assets.
Applicants can also present a business plan to get funds.
“It’s not difficult to apply for a loan if you’re in the neighborhood. It takes just a few days to get the money,” said an employee at the People’s Credit Fund in Nghe Anh province, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Though the funds are not supposed to be spent on daily life costs, there is little oversight.
“We cannot control what they actually do with the money,” the employee said.
Vietnamese and U.K. officials have not confirmed the identities of the 39 bodies found in the truck in Essex last week.
Their relatives in Ha Tinh and Nghe An are still suspended in grief, after the tragedy exposed the well-oiled world of people smuggling from Vietnam.
Trafficking expert Mimi Vu said families saddled with debt — owed to smugglers, banks, or relatives — are at risk of repeating the cycle.
“If there’s another young person, another family member, they’ll try and send them abroad” to repay the money, Vietnam-based Vu said.