Understanding trafficking tragedy and suffering in Vietnam

Understanding trafficking tragedy and suffering in Vietnam Fr Anthony Dang Huu Nam leads a prayer in Nghe An province Photograph:The Guardian/ KHAM/Reuters
Chai Brady speaks to an Irish priest who combats human trafficking in Vietnam


Understanding why people risk their lives and pay extortionate amounts of money to be taken on perilous journeys across Europe is confounding for many people far removed from the causal factors behind the decision, but one priest who works on the front line in Vietnam says the young people are seen as heroes by their families for their sacrifice.

Fr Seán Cassin OFM (70), the CEO and founder of anti-trafficking NGO Dasatt who operate in Ireland and Vietnam, works with families in desperate situations to stop them having to resort to human traffickers in the hopes of a better life.

Speaking to village leaders in Mui Ne, a beach town in Southeast Vietnam, Fr Cassin asked why people from the area endeavour to reach Europe by such risky means. “Destitution” in a family’s situation was the response.

Fr Cassin told The Irish Catholic: “They could have gone without rice even, the basic staple of rice for one or two days – we’ve done research on that.


“The village leaders said that if you look at the alternative, going in search of work, risking trafficking is preferable than what’s facing the people at home, because they’re not going to survive.

“Very often the young person of 15, or 16 or 18 or whatever, is treated by the family as a hero, who are heading off to try and save the family, so it’s seen as a kind of a heroism.”

Fr Cassin says that young people can think two things before making the decision, that “one, if they leave, the family won’t have to support them and keep them, and two, there’s always the promise or the hope that they make enough money to send it home to rescue the family from destitution”.

Although families in dire circumstances will honour young people willing to travel to greener pastures and do what they can to pull them out of poverty, many times they are unaware of the extent of the risks their loved ones are about to take.

There was a large amount of news coverage of the tragedy in Essex, London, last month on October 23, when 31 men and eight women were found dead in a refrigerated container. All the bodies have since been identified and the families informed – every one of them was from Vietnam and are suspected of being trafficked. At the time of print Vietnamese authorities had arrested eight people in connection with the case and two people were arrested in the UK. There appears to be a strong Irish connection with the tragedy on the European end.

A 22-year-old from Newry is facing multiple counts of manslaughter for the deaths of the 39 migrants after UK authorities alleged he delivered the trailer to Zeebrugge Port in Belgium. Another Northern Irish man, aged 25, from Craigavon was charged with manslaughter – he was the driver of the lorry that arrived in Essex – and was arrested at the scene.

UK authorities were still asking for brothers Ronan (40) and Christopher (34) Hughes from Armagh at the time of print to hand themselves in, they have links with the road haulage and shipping industries. They are both wanted on suspicion of manslaughter and human trafficking.

This comes as an Irish man in his 50s was arrested in England on suspicion of assisting 15 people with illegal entry to the country when they were found in the back of the lorry he was driving, which is owned by a company in Cork. This is believed to be a separate incident which happened this month.

After the devastating discovery in Essex, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland Eamon Martin warned Irish people that human trafficking is not some distant phenomenon, but could be happening “right in front of us – in our own parish, in our own town”.

For many people in Europe who heard about the incident in the news or from word of mouth, it was shocking, but Fr Cassin saw the first-hand effects of a discovery of this nature as Dasatt’s phone lines were “inundated” with calls from families in Vietnam who feared their loved one may be among the dead.

It exposes the considerable numbers that aren’t recorded that are being trafficked”

Many Vietnamese families, Fr Cassin says, believe when they pay human traffickers tens of thousands of dollars that the person being trafficked will arrive in the country by a normal means of transportation, unaware that the conditions are far more precarious.

The discovery in Essex, he says, “they would find very frightening and very horrific”.

“Most of them would have believed that their kids – they’re paying something like 30,000 to a trafficker to get their son or daughter into the UK – are being flown in or they’re going by bus or coach or by ship. This notion of the container is quite a horrific spectacle for families.”

“It has exposed the levels of organisation that are going on, it exposes the considerable numbers that aren’t recorded that are being trafficked.

“Some interesting stuff that is emerging recently from a study done from 2008-2016, found that out of 8,000 Vietnamese victims, who were trafficked over that period, 75% of those were 15 years of age or under,” Fr Cassin says.

Looking at the Essex disaster and other cases, he says many people begin their trafficking at a young age and may have been out of Vietnam for a long period of time before reaching the UK.

Speaking about why families would call the charity, Fr Cassin said: “Very often they haven’t heard from their kid who is maybe in Prague, a lot of the young people are actually working their way from Russia across to France in the hopes of getting into the UK, so often they’re working and being exploited on building sites in Russia, Romania, Prague and places like that.

“Part of what we say to the families is, ‘how long has it been since you’ve heard from them?’ ‘How were they when you were last talking to them?’ A lot of reassurances that they’re just panicking and it’s just kind of reassuring them that if the last time you heard from your kids and  they were doing ok, it’s no time to panic.”


Most of the Vietnamese people found dead came from three known people-smuggling areas in Vietnam: Ha Tinh, Nghe An and Quang Binh. Ha Tinh province was the site of a chemical spill from a steel factory in 2016 that poisoned up to 125 miles of the northern coastline and devastated the fishing industry.

This disaster caused huge amounts of people to lose their jobs. Fr Cassin says that he warned the Home Office in the UK at the time that the area would soon become a “hot bed of human trafficking” after what he describes as the “big fish kill”.

“During a power outing they leaked chemicals like cyanide, bromide and other chemicals – huge quantities – into the sea so that for 200km up and down the coast you had dead fish being washed up and there was a 20-nautical-mile ban on either fishing or profiting on fish,” he says.

“This decimated those people, and they paid something like 760 dollars to each fisherman who lost their living and even now they’re still suffering from that and that’s three years ago.

“The lives of these people have been devastated by this kind of exploitation, this thoughtless economic development that are based entirely on profiteering. It took three months for Formosa to admit that the poisoning of the sea was their doing.”

Fr Cassin disagrees with the term ‘push-factors’ to describe why some migrants leave their country and put themselves at the hands of traffickers.

“I think they’re causal factors. Which are the structured economic policies and the poverty that actually generates this kind of risky migratory labour,” he said.

Most of the Vietnamese people found dead came from three known people-smuggling areas in Vietnam”

His anti-human trafficking charity has been trying to mitigate against the need for people to leave Vietnam to attain better job prospects and raise themselves and their families above the poverty line.

“Dasatt have pioneered a model here that reaches out to the poorest villages, we do an assessment of the families that are most at risk,” he says.

“We would ask them things like, ‘how many days in the past month did you have no rice?’ We would use this as a measure in order to establish the risk of trafficking due to poverty, because as soon as families become that poor they pull their kids out of school, sometimes as young as eight years of age.

“It’s quite normal to have 12-year-olds up the highlands who are working in the villages or are working growing cassava, or in the coffee farms because they can’t afford to keep them at school. If they can sell a fish a day in Mui Ne in the fishing villages it feeds the family for that day.

“The local government can supply me with lists of families who are living below the poverty line, we know where those families are, we know what the risks are and that if nothing is being done about their poverty they are going to engage in risky migration.”

Before a young person is taken out of school to work, Dasatt identifies what children might be at risk of having to work, and they train them.

“They can’t work until they’re 15 here, so we would take a 14 and a half year old who dropped out of school, we would train them for 6 months in speaking English for tourism, we would train them in cooking and restaurant skills so they would easily get jobs in tourism.

“But we also tell the families that learning English is probably one of the greatest antidotes to being trafficked. No trafficker wants somebody who speaks English, who can read road signs, who can ask for help, who can expose them.”

The charity now have a “big uptake” in the number of people taking their English classes in the poorer regions of Mui Ne. Except for the Church in Ireland, Fr Cassin says, “we’d be out of business”. They also get funds from barristers which helps them raise enough money to train 10 children for six months.

Teaching means that if they are to migrate when they’re 19, 20 or 21, they’re migrating with a skill”

“You can train them for six months for about $1,200. That means they get their keep, travel, experts teaching them and as soon as they get jobs locally it changes the entire position of the family, because not only are they still able to stay at home – and they’re really family based people you wouldn’t believe the primacy they give to family, it comes before the individual, and some of the trafficking heroism is coming out of that ethos of wanting to save, serve, rescue the family.

“It’s totally different from our Western kind of independence, when you turn 18 or 19 you’re expected to get out and do your own thing, it’s a complete kind of reverse of that.

“When they begin to make some money it changes the entire need to migrate, it means that if they are to migrate when they’re 19, 20 or 21, they’re migrating with a skill set that makes more things possible.”


Despite there being a relatively small number of Catholics in the country, it currently stands at about 7% (6.7 million), there are growing faith communities with “packed churches” and seminaries “bursting at the seams” says Fr Cassin, “mostly because I think that the Catholic Church is offering an alternative and a somewhat kinder system than the current communist government”.

“It’s interesting after the Farmosa disaster it was actually a Catholic priest who lead a lot of the protests after that. You see again now there was a Mass offered in Nghe An for the people and there was a big crowd at that, so there would be strong Catholic affiliations.”

For those whose children have made or are on a perilous journey to Europe, they find great comfort in their Catholic faith, according to Fr Cassin.

There are Masses organised particularly for poorer families who have young people abroad that would be “discreet”.

Fr Cassin says: “They take a lot of solace and consolation from being able to pray and being able to trust in God, so their faith is a boost to them.”

Overall, Dasatt are trying to help families survive and stay to together in Vietnam, but the economic policies of the government are one of the main factors causing people to be trapped in poverty – with no other option but to leave or struggle to survive in some of the poorest areas in the country.