U.K. Police Release Names of 39 People Found Dead in Essex Truck

By Elian Peltier

Ten of the victims were teenagers. All were from Vietnam. The police in England were working to repatriate the bodies.

Pham Thi Tra My, one of the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain last month, wrote: “I’m sorry, Mom, my path abroad didn’t succeed.” 
Pham Thi Tra My, one of the 39 people found dead in a truck in Britain last month, wrote: “I’m sorry, Mom, my path abroad didn’t succeed.” Credit...Minzayar Oo for The New York Times
Elian Peltier

LONDON — For weeks, the Vietnamese relatives of a 26-year-old woman who had left home in search of a better life in Europe had feared that she was among the 39 people whose bodies were found in a refrigerated trailer in southeastern England last month.

The woman, Pham Thi Tra My, who hailed from a village in Ha Tinh, had been convinced that she could find a job as a manicurist in England and help her family, which had accumulated $19,000 in debt.

But late one day in October, she had texted her parents, “I’m dying because I can’t breathe,” and apologized because her “path abroad didn’t succeed.”

On Friday, the police in Essex, England, said publicly that their daughter had been positively identified among the bodies found on Oct. 23 in the refrigerated trailer that was transported from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to an industrial park in Grays, Essex.

Ms. Pham’s father, Pham Van Thin, said on Friday that his wife had been unable to get out of bed ever since they had learned their daughter’s fate.

“I only wish the governments of the two countries will help us to bring my daughter back to Vietnam,” he added.

On Thursday, the British authorities said that working with Vietnamese officials, they had identified all the bodies, putting an end to weeks of uncertainty. On Friday, they released the names, ages and home provinces of the eight female and 31 male victims. They ranged in age from 15 to 44, the police said in a statement.

Ten of them were teenagers. Three were minors: Nguyen Huy Hung and Dinh Dinh Binh, both 15, and Tran Ngoc Hieu, 17.

The grisly discovery had all the signs of a human-smuggling operation turned tragically wrong. The case plunged dozens of family in Vietnam into sorrow and shed a grim light on smugglers that prey on desperate people trying to reach Europe for a better future. An estimated 18,000 Vietnamese people a year set out on the journey.

The driver of the truck, Maurice Robinson, 25, of Northern Ireland, was charged on Oct. 26 with 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people. Several others either were arrested or are wanted by the British police.

But the trail of grief led back to Vietnam, which has arrested eight people in connection with the case.

Vietnamese smugglers have called the deadly route taken by those seeking a new life the “CO2” route, a poorly ventilated trip across the English Channel in shipping containers or trailers that marks the final leg of a perilous journey across Asia and Europe.

For many in Vietnam, Britain represents a chance at better economic opportunities than other European countries. That prospect has turned the Southeast Asian country into a major source of human-trafficking victims to Britain, experts say, the second-highest after Albania.

Most Vietnamese end up working in cannabis farms, restaurants, nail salons and the catering industry, said Nando Sigona, a professor of migration studies and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham who has studied the path of young Vietnamese to Britain.

Mr. Sigona said worsening livelihoods in Vietnam have forced people there to take on higher debts than many others traveling from other Asian countries.

“The more risks you’re able to take, the less you will pay,” Mr. Sigona said. “It’s survival migration.”

But migrants’ hope that they will earn more money in Britain than in other Western European countries are often illusionary, Mr. Sigona added, leading many to take more unnecessary risks.

“There is this idea that Britain is a better place for migrants than, say, France,” he noted. “Once they’re here, they realize it might not be so true. Yet those back home in Vietnam keep thinking that one more step to Britain will be worth it.”

Ten of the truck victims identified this week were from Ha Tinh, one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces, where officials estimate 41,000 people left in the first eight months of this year. But most of those found in the trailer, 20, were from Nghe An, another impoverished province of Vietnam, according to the Essex Police.

Among them was Nguyen Dinh Tu, a 26-year-old father of two who had borrowed $17,000 to build a house for his family, his relatives said. Mr. Nguyen had worked at a food company in Romania, and later at a restaurant in Germany, before embarking on a final journey to England.

“If you want your life in the village to change,” Mr. Nguyen’s brother said in October, “the only way is to go overseas.”

Last month, a journalist from The Times met several families that feared their relatives were among the victims.

Nguyen Dinh Luong, a 20-year-old farmer whose body was also found in the trailer in Essex, had traveled to Russia and then Ukraine before reaching France in July 2018.

He found work there as a waiter. In October, he went to Belgium, aiming to reach England and to work in a nail salon. His father, Nguyen Dinh Gia, had given DNA samples to the police to help in the identification.

Ms. Pham, who texted her parents from the truck, had traveled to China to get a fake passport, and then to France, hoping that Britain would be the final destination. Her parents said they had taken out a mortgage to finance her trip.

But on Oct. 23, Ms. Pham’s parents saw her final text message. That was the day her body was found in an industrial park, almost 6,000 miles away from home.

The Essex Police said on Friday that the Vietnamese and British governments were working together to repatriate the victims’ bodies. For weeks, the British authorities had scrambled to identify the victims, first announcing that the bodies found in the trailer were believed to be Chinese and that one minor was among them — instead of the three announced on Friday.

Relatives in Vietnam also made anguished calls to people in the Vietnamese community in Britain, asking for help to identify their missing loved ones.

The Rev. Simon Thang Duc Nguyen, the parish priest at a Roman Catholic church in East London attended by many migrant parishioners, said eight families had called him and sent details about their relatives’ identities.

“Many started to face the truth,” Father Simon said on Friday, “and now we all have to, even if it’s so hard to bear.”

Assistant Chief Constable Tim Smith of Essex Police, the senior officer overseeing the investigation, said the police had released the names after informing the families to give them “some time to absorb this tragic news.”

Father Simon said he would ask the authorities to allow Vietnamese residents in London to pay tribute to the victims before the bodies were repatriated.

“Many of my parishioners escaped from their country this way, and they also bear this mark,” he said of the journey in the back of a truck. “There is real sadness here in London, in Vietnam and everywhere across the world where you have Vietnamese people,” he added.

“Now, this is the reality we have to carry with us.”

Sui-Lee Wee and Chau Doan contributed reporting from Vietnam, and Anna Schaverien from London.