Written by Daniel Silverstone.

The United Kingdom and Vietnam enjoy a longstanding security relationship forged over the last ten years aimed at reducing the impact of irregular migration, trafficking and the cultivation of cannabis by Vietnamese nationals in the UK.

In 2006 Operation Keymer, aimed at disrupting domestic cannabis cultivation in the UK, illustrated for the first time the significant role that irregular Vietnamese migrants played either working in or running what are characterised as cannabis ‘farms’ or ‘factories’. These migrants contrasted with the established and law-abiding diaspora community, largely made of up of southern Vietnamese who fled Vietnam, via Hong Kong to the UK after the Vietnamese/American war ended.

The successful kidnapping of Trinh Xuan Thanh, a Vietnamese man claiming asylum in Germany by the Vietnamese security services has forced UK Law enforcement to revaluate their links to the Vietnamese authorities.

The new Vietnamese arrivals were from different parts of the globe and had very different aspirations and biographies. They were migrants from what was Eastern Germany used to working in the black market cigarette trade or from the Czech Republic, Ukraine or Russia leaving poorly paid work in clothes markets or manufacturing. Other new arrivals came from the northern provinces of Vietnam, principally Hai Phong, seeking to enhance their family’s prospects by sending back remittances earned either legally within niche businesses such as nail shops or illegally by cultivating cannabis. Despite concerns at the time, there was little involvement in sex trafficking or serious violence. Fast-forward to 2017, however, the situation has deteriorated.

Available profiles reveal significant Vietnamese involvement with cannabis. Whilst a recent report published by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner shows that the prospects of migrating to the UK has reduced from some areas (Eastern Europe) stabilised in others, (Hai Phong) but increased from others. New communities of irregular migrants from the central northern provinces have been coming to the UK in large numbers. For UK immigration authorities, Vietnam is still a problematic country, albeit not on the scale of countries such as Eritrea, Iran or Nigeria.

More alarming, the National Referral Mechanism (which documents the numbers of people who are characterised as trafficked) consistently records Vietnam as one of the countries with the most victims in the UK and in particular the largest number of child trafficking victims. Victims are most frequently trafficked in cannabis cultivations or have experienced abuse/exploitation during their long journey from Vietnam through to Russia and then overland across Europe.

So what is not working and what are the prospects for change? On the one hand, the deteriorating situation is surprising as the available macro-economic indicators in Vietnam show rapid and sustained economic growth. This is evident not just in the rise in GDP per capita, that has taken millions out of absolute poverty, but also in the diversification of industries – for example, the way Vietnam has successfully become a regional and western tourist destination.

On the other hand, there are still the stubborn issues of corruption and the lack of change in the Vietnamese political system. This has two consequences. First, many young people feel their employment prospects are constrained by the lack of political connections.  Secondly, others are either persecuted by the state or they do not feel sufficiently protected by its agents such as the Ministry of Public Security.

Furthermore, although Vietnamese authorities have made efforts to reduce trafficking, they still encourage economic migration as a macro-economic strategy and tend to view those who leave Vietnam for the UK as economic migrants rather than trafficked victims.  Trafficking is an issue that affects Vietnamese nationals who end up in China or Cambodia.

For British Law enforcement based in the UK, the picture is a confusing one. Whilst agencies acknowledge there are hundreds of trafficking victims per year, there are also thousands of irregular migrants, many of whom will falsely allege they are trafficked and will exaggerate how young they are so as to evade the authorities.  A recent review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services “found that the police service has much to do if it is to develop an effective, coherent and consistent response to modern slavery and human trafficking.” However, this is hard to implement in the Vietnamese case as criminal groups are highly mobile, do not converse in English, and do not co-operate with authorities, making prosecutions difficult.

Returning to Vietnam and the issues of reducing trafficking and illegal migration, it is frequently difficult for UK authorities to establish the identity of a victim of trafficking as the Vietnamese do not have a national fingerprint database. Local connections are important to cultivate, if anti-trafficking efforts are to reach those who might be considering going to the UK. For example, it is provincial level officials who decide whether non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can distribute materials outlining a more accurate picture of life in the UK and their influence is useful in the successful implementation of ethical supply chain training.

Nevertheless, UK law enforcement frequently provides training to Vietnamese security organisations and work has begun on the creation of a Memorandum of Understanding to trafficking. In practice, there have been prisoner exchanges and the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security have assisted UK police investigations of Vietnamese nationals killed in the UK, such as Mr Tran Nguyen in 2008.  Yet, there is little progress in the recovery of the proceeds of crime laundered in Vietnam. Vietnam’s use of the death penalty and the aforementioned issue of corruption make the relationship complicated.

This year, there have been two significant developments. The British government has made a multi-million investment in reducing trafficking. This entails distributing substantial funds to local NGOs with more to be disbursed this financial year. Meanwhile, the successful kidnapping of Trinh Xuan Thanh, a Vietnamese man claiming asylum in Germany by the Vietnamese security services has forced UK Law enforcement to revaluate their links to the Vietnamese authorities. A similar operation on British soil, if implemented, would end recent positive developments. Overall, the effectiveness of the security relationship is still in the balance, and it will need to be improved if these problems are not to persist for another ten years.

Daniel Silverstone is the director of  the Centre for Advanced Policing Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. His research interests lie in the study of organised crime and its policing. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.

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