Cái khó ló cái khôn is a Vietnamese proverb, which means most of us seldom take the trouble to think. Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, they force us to think.
Thirty-nine people, all Vietnamese, were found dead in a lorry in Essex in the United Kingdom on October 23. Another humanitarian crisis near a European border. Not in a rickety boat this time, but in a refrigerated lorry driven by a man from Northern Ireland. Why were those 39 people in the lorry in the first place and why were they heading to the UK?
On a recent visit to Vietnam, I was struck by the degradation of years of communist rule and the resulting economic depression. The scars of the Vietnam War are still physically and psychologically visible on the landscape and in the eyes of the hard working and gentle Vietnamese people.
Organised gangs of people smugglers prey on this context. Families would have spent life savings and incurred impossible debts to pay for a way out for these 39 daughters and sons. They are sold romantic stories of glorious Britain where jobs are plentiful and people are welcoming. They gamble with their lives on an opportunity to earn money to send home to their poverty-stricken families. Only to be at best forced into modern slavery on a cannabis farm in Derbyshire or a nail bar in London. Or to die a slow death in a refrigerated lorry.
But there is another side to this story. Vietnam regularly battles typhoons, floods, droughts and landslides. Extreme weather patterns affect the poorer rural population the most. Fishing and agriculture still account for 21% of gross domestic product and are climate-dependent industries. If you are a young, rural Vietnamese person and can’t fish or work in the rice paddies then you have few job prospects and no hope of escaping poverty. Climate change is making agricultural work tenuous and unreliable.
It seems that most of the 39 Vietnamese were from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. These regions are very poor — the average monthly wage is less than the national average (which is about $150 a month). Unemployment is rife and Ha Tinh province was the site of an environmental disaster in 2016. A chemical spill from a Taiwanese-owned steel factory poisoned 201km of coastline along the northern shore and decimated the fishing industry in this region.
The lorry driver now in custody in the UK is but one small link in a big chain of socioeconomic, political and ecological developments that has resulted in this humanitarian tragedy. Migration is a global problem that requires global solutions. This in a time when the Western world is turning inward. Away from multiculturalism and global co-operation and towards ultra-nationalism.
Withdrawing from global climate change agreements and building more walls and fences to keep poor and destitute people out is not the solution. Neither is leaving the European Union and weakening European co-operation on global issues such as climate change and migration.
A week after the Essex tragedy, another refrigerated lorry with 41 people of Afghan origin was discovered in Greece near the city of Xanthi. This time they were all still alive, but suffering from respiratory problems. How many more such crises will it take before governments and policymakers take the trouble to think about the creative and multilateral approaches needed to deal with these complex issues? A wall or border fence cannot stem human migration in pursuit of a better life.
Helen Macdonald is a freelance political researcher and analyst