(This Week in Asia): Van left his home in Quang Binh, a province in central Vietnam, about a year ago – with one dream: building a better life in Britain.
“I quit school in the 7th grade. I was an average student and used to farm with my parents,” recalls Van, who has three younger siblings.
“I was going to do vocational training in 2017, but decided to save money to go overseas instead, thinking I could earn more money in the UK.”
To make the journey possible, his parents borrowed about US$10,000 from a bank. Little did they know what following his dream would entail.
After being smuggled across several countries, Van tried to cross the English Channel in the back of a lorry in September, but border agents caught him and threw him in a detention centre in northern France.
Van’s experience took place about a month before 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated truck in Essex, east of London.
Van was lucky not to have been one of them, but the tragedy has not put him off trying to reach Britain.
The 22-year-old is still waiting to hear if he will be deported back to Vietnam. If not, he will try to find his way back to one of the temporary camps set up by smugglers and attempt to board a lorry bound for Britain.
The remains of the 39 Vietnamese who died in Britain were sent home last week for final rites; Van is still waiting for another chance to cross the border.
Essex truck deaths: tip of the iceberg?
For some, these are stories of migration gone wrong. But even as families mourn their relatives, others are waving off loved ones whose journeys have only just begun.
Thousands of Vietnamese, who are unable to find a legal route to enter Britain, have been smuggled in and are now working in businesses like cannabis farms, nail bars and restaurants, where their lack of documentation often leaves them prone to exploitation. Others are lingering in bordering nations such as France, waiting for an opportunity to enter.
While many migrants were willing to embrace the risks of the journey, some have become victims of the thriving human-trafficking trade.
Experts say there is no simple solution. But most agree it is important to create job opportunities in their home country and, at the same time, for countries such as Britain to be more open to migration by low-skilled workers and offer better protection to those who are vulnerable.
“People will migrate for better opportunities, because they need to,” says Archana Kotecha, head of the legal department at non-profit organisation Liberty Shared.
When Van left his home country, he never thought that more than a year later he would still be making his way to Britain.
His family was able to pay for one of the cheaper services available, which covered a flight to Moscow and a visa to enter. Once in the Russian capital, he was kept in a house for three weeks, until he was smuggled into Ukraine – where he slept for a couple of weeks in a forest. He then crossed into Slovakia and finally got into a car that took him to the Cho Dong Xuan,a Vietnamese market in Berlin, Germany.
“I lived in a house in Berlin for seven months and sold fake medicines from Poland to Germans at the entrances and exits of train stations,” Van recalls.
He says he doesn’t know what kind of “medicines” he sold, as he could read neither German nor English. But he earned 20 per cent commission on the sales, making him about 40 euros (US$45) on an average day.
He continued on his journey, taking a train to Paris and then a car to Arras, a city in northern France, along with other Vietnamese migrants.
“I was taken into a forest with more than 30 people … Mostly Nghe An and Ha Tinh [provinces in north-central Vietnam] people,” he says. At some point, “I was hiding in a container, but the driver didn’t know I was there.”
It was late September when he was taken to a detention centre in Coquelles, close to Calais, after being caught by French border guards. Van and six others were already on a lorry making their way to England when they were found in an inspection before the vehicle entered the UK.