In 2019, I wrote about 39 Vietnamese migrants who were discovered dead in a refrigerated truck in Essex. While it was one of the most high-profile cases of people smuggling uncovered in Britain , throughout the years many more Vietnamese people have died making the journey. Four men have since been jailed for manslaughter, and authorities have cracked down on road routes. But many are desperate to build a new life, and traffickers are quick to adapt. In recent months, there have been reports of people from Vietnam reaching England crammed into small boats. Smugglers have reportedly lured an increasing number of people into crossing the English Channel over the summer. Mimi Vu, an anti-human trafficking specialist based in the Southeast Asian nation, said the Vietnamese attempting to enter Britain by boat “are people who were already transiting in Europe when [the coronavirus] restrictions led to border closures” last year. She said migrants ended up getting stuck in various European countries, as it became more difficult for people smugglers to operate their normal routes, while the cost of crossing Europe , especially the English Channel between France and Britain, also “increased dramatically” because of fewer crossings and increased risks. But the loosening of border restrictions and the warmer summer months “created ideal travel conditions for smugglers to resume their operations and move the backlog of Vietnamese migrants,” Vu said. Four men jailed for decades over deaths of 39 Vietnamese found in truck Over the years, thousands of Vietnamese have been smuggled into Britain to work on cannabis farms as well as in businesses such as nail bars and restaurants. Often, they lack documentation, which leaves them more prone to exploitation. The lines between migration, people smuggling, and human trafficking are sometimes blurred. And, mostly thanks to the rise of populist politicians, migration has become a highly controversial topic in recent years. But let’s be clear: these are not simple and binary concepts. People may start by deciding to travel to Britain because they dream of a better life and end up paying people smugglers. While some have a rough idea of what they are getting themselves into, the risks are often played down. They are often promised decent jobs and salaries, but instead many are deceived as well as exploited along the way by organised crime networks. A German newspaper reported earlier this year on how Vietnamese girls were forced into prostitution in exchange for water and food. The new [nationality and borders] law will do nothing to stem the exploitation of Vietnamese migrants and their movement to the UK Mimi Vu, Vietnam-based anti-human trafficking specialist Once they arrive in Britain, migrants are often held in debt bondage and face abuse. Sometimes they don’t even know exactly where they are being taken, and they are left with no option but to work for free or for little money – because of family expectations, debt, not speaking the language, and not having anyone to turn to. Britain’s new Nationality and Borders Bill, introduced in the House of Commons on July 6, would make it a crime to knowingly arrive in the country without permission, with the maximum sentence rising from six months to four years in prison. Smugglers could be punished with life imprisonment. The government has said it wants to break up people-smuggling gangs, while also increasing safe and legal routes for refugees to reach Britain. But local and international advocates say this legislation would do the opposite. “The proposed law is considered draconian by many since it’s aimed at punishing the wrong people. It’s not the migrants who are committing the crimes and who should be targeted,” Vu said. They stole my mum’s organs: a Vietnamese trafficked to Britain Law enforcement and criminal convictions thus far have focused primarily on catching the drivers or those handling logistics – people at the very bottom of the people-smuggling chain – while the big bosses remain largely untouched, she said. “The new law will do nothing to stem the exploitation of Vietnamese migrants and their movement to the UK; rather, it will encourage organised crime and smuggling networks to become even more creative, as they’re used to adapting to new situations in the pursuit of profit,” Vu said. The policy of punishing instead of protecting vulnerable trafficking victims led to a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in February, which ordered Britain to pay compensation to two Vietnamese men after they were found working on cannabis farms and convicted of drugs offences, despite signs they had been trafficked as children. Criminalising the vulnerable is not what the world expects from a country that supposedly prides itself on upholding human rights. While the British government has announced further efforts to patrol borders, some of these resources should instead be directed to a deeper understanding of the roots of the problem – both within the UK and the migrants’ countries of origin – as well as to enhance cooperation with other European nations and better understand Vietnamese culture and language. Several advocates I spoke to also said Britain should take a long, hard look at its own insatiable demand for cheap goods, labour, and services. At the same time, as Vu noted, authorities must thoroughly examine the history of each Vietnamese migrant to identify whether they are victims of trafficking and provide the necessary support for recovery, instead of punishing them as criminals or illegal migrants. “Otherwise, their victimisation will be compounded through prolonged stays in detention centres, uneven access to legal and health services, or deportation without considering the ramifications of the control that the criminal networks still exert via debt bondage and threats of harm,” Vu said. Malaysia smashes US$14 million people-smuggling syndicate, arrests police, soldiers Archana Kotecha, a legal expert and founder of the social enterprise Remedy Project, noted that many Vietnamese trafficking victims lacked access to justice. “Unfortunately, events like Brexit have not helped because it has shaped the attitude around migration,” she said, adding that “it has become more dangerous for people who don’t have the means to migrate”. But that won’t deter many of them. “People will migrate for better opportunities, because they need to,” Kotecha said. And traffickers will continue to adapt and profit from those who are vulnerable – unless authorities do more to protect them.