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How EU police disrupted Vietnamese human trafficking rings

Vietnamese human trafficking syndicates have been targeted this year by pan-European police busts. However, the root causes of illegal immigration remain.

Several of the victims were believed to have been illegally trafficked into Europe to work as forced laborers. (Representational Image)

Human trafficking from Vietnam to Europe has emerged as a big problem in recent years. The EU’s law enforcement agency, Interpol, is cracking down on smuggling rings and has seen some success.

In June, raids coordinated by Europol were carried out in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Belgium.

Nine individuals from the same criminal group were arrested for allegedly smuggling illegal migrants from Vietnam into Europe.

The issue of people trafficking from Vietnam came to the fore in October 2019 when 39 Vietnamese nationals were discovered suffocated in a refrigerator truck parked outside an industrial estate in the UK county of Essex.

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Several of the victims were believed to have been illegally trafficked into Europe to work as forced laborers.

Vietnamese nationals have also paid smugglers to help them cross the English Channel between France and the UK, experts say. A British Home Office report released earlier this year said that 279 Vietnamese nationals crossed the Channel on small boats between January and June 2022.

In January, a Belgian court sentenced Vo Van Hong, a Vietnamese national, to 15 years in prison after ruling that he was the ringleader of a gang that trafficked the migrants found dead in the UK. A further 19 people, all Vietnamese nationals or Belgians of Vietnamese descent, were convicted on similar charges.

Migrants promised work

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“Many of our Vietnamese clients start their journey by flying into Eastern European countries. Almost all are promised decent work with fair wages, but the reality is far from that,” said Nusrat Uddin, a human trafficking specialist from Wilson Solicitors LLP, a London-based law firm working with immigration.

“Many then travel onwards through Europe, again under the false premise of better conditions elsewhere,” she added.

Uddin said that many Vietnamese trafficked into Europe do not realize their “work” in Europe is actually a form of “modern slavery.”

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“Most are from impoverished backgrounds, with families back home relying on their menial pay and no option but to continue. Work permits add to this problem, by further legitimizing the exploitative working conditions,” Uddin said.

“Even after years of abuse many of our clients lose out on support and opportunities, as they are unable to report the mistreatment to the authorities,” she added.

A long-running problem

A 2017 report by the United Nations Economic and Social Council estimated that Vietnamese smuggling networks bring about 18,000 people from Vietnam to Europe annually, an illegal trade worth around €300 million ($315.6 million).

Vietnam has emerged as one of the EU’s most important trading partners in recent years, thanks in large part to a free-trade deal that came into effect in 2020. Bilateral trade was worth around €49 billion last year, according to European Commission data.

Europe is also home to large Vietnam diaspora communities, especially in the Czech Republic, where it constitutes around 1% of the national population, according to latest government estimates.

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Many of the trafficking syndicates are based in the Czech Republic, and Europol noted in a statement after its raid in June that “several hundred thousand Czech crowns were seized,” a reference to the local currency.

A Europol official, who asked for anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media, said major breakthroughs have been made this year in disrupting the criminal organizations responsible for trafficking Vietnamese nationals within Europe.

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The official was “very confident” that the pan-European raids in June had brought down one of the largest syndicates operating on the continent, and that more convictions would follow.

Addressing the root causes of human trafficking

Diep Vuong is president of Pacific Links Foundation, a US-based charity that works with Vietnamese communities and played a key role in investigations over the Essex truck tragedy.

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“It is an important win when criminal syndicates are dismantled,” Vuong said, adding that more work needs to be done.

“Prevention, such as addressing misinformation and false job promises proliferated by traffickers, is still key, as vulnerable Vietnamese continue to be lured into forced labor and trafficking.”

Although recent police busts of smuggling groups have weakened the trafficking networks, experts believe the problem will persist.

The Europol official pointed out that GDP per capita in Vietnam remains low, at around €3,520, less than a tenth of Germany’s, and greater trade with the Southeast Asian country has eased the process for Vietnamese to enter Europe, especially to visit their family members.

“The migrants would arrive by plane to Europe under a work visa delivered for one specific country. Once in Europe, the victims were smuggled across Europe to reach their final destination, usually France or the United Kingdom,” Europol said in a statement after the raids in June.

“The suspects allegedly smuggled their victims in their own vehicles, and in some cases used inflatable motorboats to reach the final stage of the journey, endangering the victims’ life,” it added.

Earlier this year, several European countries, including the Czech Republic and Germany, briefly decided not to recognize holders of Vietnam’s newly issued passports, which lack information on place of birth.

Because of the similarity of Vietnamese names, European authorities said they needed additional information, such as birth place, to adequately check the validity of the passports and visas.

An official at the Czech Interior Ministry told DW that these decisions were made partly because of fears over trafficking, especially coming amid the pan-European police crackdowns on Vietnamese smuggling organizations.

First published on: 07-12-2022 at 21:51 IST
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