How Can the UK Promote ‘Safe Migration’ for the Vietnamese Community?

How Can the UK Promote ‘Safe Migration’ for the Vietnamese Community?
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What you need to know

The U.K. has such a big appeal for the Vietnamese that many are willing to risk their lives on a perilous journey. But has the U.K. done anything to resolve the migrant problem?

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By Daniel Silverstone

As the painstaking work to identify the bodies of 39 people found in a container in Essex, south-east England, continues, it’s become an agonizing wait for the families of Vietnamese migrants who believe their loved ones may have died. After the police initially identified them as Chinese, it now seems likely that many were Vietnamese.

I’ve been researching the issue of smuggling and trafficking of people from Vietnam to the United Kingdom for the past 10 years and have observed British government efforts on several fronts – both in the U.K. and Vietnam – to reduce the prospect of a tragedy such as this occurring.

The U.K. allocated £481 million (US$623 million) of general bilateral aid funding to Vietnam between 2001 and 2015. Since 2015, the British government has continued to invest tens of millions in anti-trafficking projects there, such as building shelters for trafficked victims who have returned to Vietnam, as well providing anti-trafficking training and resources to Vietnamese law enforcement.

Continued efforts have improved law enforcement cooperation between the U.K. and Vietnam. This culminated in late 2018 with the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding on human trafficking that allowed for greater collaboration around intelligence sharing, supporting victims and prevention work.

But operating in Vietnam is difficult for the British government. Preventing migration to the U.K. is not a priority for the Vietnamese government, and it is also faced with people trafficking into China, Malaysia, and Thailand.

For many migrants, the first move from Vietnam on the journey is via a Russian visa where the U.K. is powerless to intercede. Vietnamese law enforcement agencies are also complicated partners. This was demonstrated by the 2017 kidnapping of Trinh Xuan Thanh, a Vietnamese businessman claiming asylum in Germany, whom the German government accused the Vietnamese state of kidnapping. Tanh was sentenced to life imprisonment in Vietnam in 2018.

Vietnam also still uses the death penalty and, while improving, there are issues of police corruption to contend with.

What has been attempted in the U.K.

One common destination for Vietnamese migrants who arrive in the U.K. is cannabis cultivation farms. Since the Modern Day Slavery Act was passed in 2015, there has been a step change in the way these Vietnamese migrants are routinely treated by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Before then, if found cultivating cannabis they were routinely arrested and prosecuted – regardless of the circumstances. Now, Section 45 of the Modern Day Slavery Act provides explicit legal protection for those caught cultivating cannabis, whether adults or children, if they are being compelled to work in this environment. Still, this change is not always implemented and does not yet apply in Scotland.

The Modern Day Slavery Act led to the creation of the role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and the first commissioner Kevin Hyland took a personal interest in Vietnam, visiting the country in 2015. He also commissioned me to research on the issue, detailing the types of routes Vietnamese people use to get to the U.K.

Alongside these efforts — and often running contrary to them — has been the government’s “hostile” (now “compliant”) immigration policy, aimed at making life difficult for people without permission to remain in the U.K. This included a series of measures contained within the immigration acts of 2014 and 2016. Most relevant to the Vietnamese were the introduction of stronger criminal sanctions to deter illegal working, targeted at both employers and employees. The hostile environment has resulted in lots of raids on Vietnamese-owned premises and deportations to Vietnam. Some of those convicted of growing cannabis have also been deported back to Vietnam.

Yet according the National Referral Mechanism, the U.K.’s tool used to determine whether someone is a victim of trafficking or not, Vietnamese are still the third most commonly trafficked group.

Looking for solutions

Despite this, too many of the U.K.’s efforts in Vietnam have been badged under anti-trafficking measures. But the reality, as my research and interviews with Vietnamese migrants and law enforcement officials have shown, is that much of the migration is economic in nature.

Migration from Vietnam not only continues, but people are migrating from new areas. Whereas the majority of migration was from the northern provinces of Hai Phong and Quảng Ninh, migrants are now also coming from provinces in central Vietnam, including Nghệ An, Quảng Bình, and Hà Tĩnh.

This means that further promotion of the International Migration Organization’s “safe migration” message, specifically targeted at high-risk communities, may be more effective in reducing the relative attractiveness of going to the U.K. than focusing on the risks of trafficking. While this would be far from simple to instigate — and would need to happen at the provincial level in Vietnam – the U.K. has built up some effective relationships at the national and provincial level that could help.

Despite the U.K. government’s efforts, the exploitation of Vietnamese migrants continues. It’s still possible to earn enough in irregular employment in the U.K., often in nail bars, restaurants or cannabis cultivation to make the journey worthwhile. Earnings can range from £300 to thousands per week, while journey costs vary from £10,000 to £30,000, depending on the route.

The solutions, in the U.K. at least, are political. One option is to further reinforce efforts around the compliant environment. Notwithstanding the human costs recently epitomized in the Windrush scandal, this would need an enormous investment in immigration and border enforcement. This approach is impractical and unaffordable.

This is because, as it stands — according to a recent inspection report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and immigration — many ports remain unvisited by the U.K. Border Force. In 2015, the Illegal Working Steering Group chaired by the immigration enforcement director of operations noted in an internal report that “the size of the illegal working problem is greater than our capacity to enforce it through traditional arrest activity.” Even to visit the estimated illegal businesses with their current resources would take “29-37 years,” the report said.

An alternative approach would be to reform the laws around cannabis and potentially to legalize it, a policy platform of the Liberal Democrats. This might reduce the lucrativeness of working in the U.K. and put it more in line with other European countries, which the Vietnamese currently pass through.

Whatever the political decisions taken from here, what’s needed is a sustained engagement with Vietnamese communities, both within the U.K. and in Vietnam. They are best placed to advise on changing migration trends and in crafting the appropriate messages to future migrants.


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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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