'I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed'

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on November 01, 2019

In cold blood: The UK police were tipped off to check an abandoned truck in an industrial park in Essex. In the truck’s airtight trailer were 39 bodies — 31 men and eight women   -  Reuters

Migrants chasing their dreams are bundled into inhuman shapes and ferried across borders in airtight containers. But only the lucky ones make it; others perish, gasping for breath

Last week, police in the UK made a horrible discovery. They were tipped off to check an abandoned truck in an industrial park in Essex. In the truck’s airtight trailer were 39 bodies — 31 men and eight women. The police could not identify them by names or nationalities. At some point in the journey of this trailer and its human cargo through borderless Europe — from Bulgaria to Belgium and then to the British port of Purfleet — the container went too long without being opened, the people inside began to asphyxiate, tearing off their clothes in the sweltering darkness, banging on the walls, clawing at the metal, before they grew still. They became tragic news, bodies that had slipped off the conveyor belt of global human trafficking into the brief light of headlines.

Initially, British authorities assumed the people in the truck had come from China, but now the working assumption seems to be that as many as 25 of them came from the same village of Yen Thanh in Vietnam. Investigators think that two other trucks carrying around 100 migrants reached their destinations in the UK safely. Prayers for the departed and the presumed dead are being broadcast on loudspeakers throughout Yen Thanh.

Reporters are piecing together the histories of some of the dead and missing migrants. Relatives of the 19-year-old Anna Bui Thi Nhung claimed that she was heading to Europe to work in a nail salon. She had paid traffickers around £8,000 to make the journey. I always find the sums migrants give to traffickers especially obscene, a reminder of the great barrier of nationality in the 21st century. I can’t stop myself from scanning ticket prices for flights. Somebody with the arbitrary fortune of a British passport — or any Western passport — can without a second thought make the reverse journey from London to Hanoi in business class for less than £4,000, half the price that Anna Bui Thi Nhung paid for the privilege to die forgotten in a kiln.

That many of these migrants came from Vietnam is at once surprising and unsurprising. Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, a relatively prosperous country in its region, where more and more people are being pulled from poverty. So why did these migrants want to leave? The truth is that migrants are often not the poorest, most desperate people in the world; their journeys require them to have access to some financial resources. They are plugged into pre-existing networks of trafficking and migration. With smartphones, life in Europe or the Gulf or wherever else doesn’t seem as far away, seems attainable and within reach. So to improve their lot, to make more money for themselves and their families than they can by staying at home, they make the not altogether unreasonable decision to leave. Sadly for them, they must turn into inanimate objects to cross borders, smuggled not as people but as things.

Incidents of this kind happen with depressing regularity. Two years ago, American police found nine bodies in a truck in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas; the migrants had tried to come to the US from Central America and Mexico. During the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Austrian police found an abandoned truck emblazoned with the logo of a Slovak chicken company. Inside were 71 migrants who had died from asphyxiation, packed into the trailer like cattle. In 2007, a Jamaican truck driver — an immigrant himself — abandoned his vehicle in Texas after 19 migrants from Central America and the Caribbean died in the back of his truck.

These episodes are reminders of the strange magical qualities that some human bodies are blessed with. People from developed countries move through space lightly, traverse the world as if it were merely a map, an imagining of borders rather than their reality. The likes of Anna Bui Thi Nhung are condemned from birth to see the world differently as a landscape of barriers. Migrants bundle themselves into inhuman shapes to fit in vans and trucks, folded like sweaters over the limbs of their fellow travellers, thrust like suitcases into the indifferent holds of rusting containers. When they emerge on the other side, it must be hard for them to unfold themselves and return from their rough packaging to the world of humans.

At least they are still alive. Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old, allegedly paid traffickers close to £30,000 for what she thought would be a more luxurious trip to Europe. She was soon disillusioned, eventually thrust into the doomed container. Her parents received mournful texts before they lost touch with her: “I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed,” she texted in Vietnamese. “I am dying, I can’t breathe. I love you very much, Mum and Dad. I am sorry, Mother.”

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on October 29, 2019

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