DO THANH, VIETNAM – At least three of the 39 victims found in the back of a truck in Britain last week set off from Vietnam’s “Billionaire Village” in search of their fortunes.
A billion dong may only be around $43,000, but in the rural north-central town of Do Thanh the money goes a long way. Even farmers live in palatial mansions, paid for with money sent back by family members working abroad.
Nguyen Van Ha, chairman of the rice-farming commune in Nghe An province, said, “70 to 80 percent of the villas here have been built with remittances.
“If you work in Vietnam earning dong, it would take a long time to build a big house like this,” Ha said, gesturing to the large, multistory villas flanking the town hall.
In Do Thanh, even the majestic Renaissance-style church towering over the plush neighboring villas was built with remittance money donated by the Catholic community.
Many other victims are believed to come from outside the town, in the surrounding district of Yen Thanh. In the 1980s, Do Thanh used to be one of the district’s poorest villages, according to state media.
One resident, 19-year-old Bui Thi Nhung, is thought by her family to be among the dead. She left a trail of messages on her social media account documenting her journey through Europe in the days before she boarded the fated vehicle.
Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Cuong told Reuters on Tuesday the nationality of the victims had not been officially confirmed but that Vietnam and Britain were “trying to speed up identification of the bodies.
The grisly discovery last week on an industrial estate near London, a magnet for Vietnamese migrants, has shone a spotlight on people smugglers bringing the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.
In Vietnam, factors pushing people to leave include poor job prospects, encouragement by authorities, smuggling gangs, environmental disasters and government pressure on Catholics.
But even though the cost of getting to Europe can run into thousands of dollars for migrants ready to pay for a “VIP” service, they believe they can make enough money to justify the risk.
“We know that many residents of this district are living in Britain, but we have no idea what they do there to earn all this money to send back home,” Ha said.
Overseas workers sent nearly $16 billion in remittances to Vietnam in 2018 — more than double the country’s trade surplus for the same period — according to World Bank data that showed remittances had risen 130 percent over the last decade.
In Nghe An and neighboring Ha Tinh province, official policy supports the legal export of labor.
Nghe An province alone rakes in some $255 million annually from its overseas citizens, according to state media.
“The remittance figures might be higher than reported, as money transferred through unofficial ways such as cash or as physical consumer goods is not counted,” said Nguyen Tri Hieu, a Hanoi-based economist and former government adviser.
Many of the same networks that smuggle people also smuggle cash, in return for commission.
About 70 percent of Vietnamese trafficking cases in Britain between 2009 and 2016 were related to labor exploitation, with migrants lured into jobs growing cannabis illegally and working in nail salons, Britain said last year.
But many find legal work too, including in Europe, America, Japan, Taiwan and Laos.
In Nghe An, which borders Laos, GDP per capita stands at $1,636, well below Vietnam’s national average of $2,540.
“I didn’t have enough money to go abroad so I went to Saigon instead,” said Bui Van Diep, a welder, using the old name for Ho Chi Minh City.
He lives in a small shack in Do Thanh. His cousin, Bui Chung, lives in a large, gleaming villa next door — with enough space leftover to park his jet black BMW.
Bui Chung left Do Thanh for Britain in 2007, and when he returned home he built his house and started a steel trading business.
“I went from Vietnam to France legally, but from France to the U.K. illegally inside a container truck,” said Chung. “I chose to go to the U.K. because the salary is very good and so many people from Do Thanh had already lived there.”
Chung worked in a cannabis farm in Britain and at a Vietnamese-run nail salon where he earned around £500 ($640) a week.
“The Vietnamese community living there help newcomers to find jobs,” Chung said. “That’s why many people around here are willing to even sell their land to raise enough money to go.”
Now, he believes he made a huge mistake returning home.
“I’ve lost a lot of money doing business here. People don’t trust each other,” he said. “I might go back to the U.K.”