YEN THANH, Vietnam (Reuters) - Several townships in rural Vietnam sank into mourning on Saturday, with communities believing that many of the 39 people found dead in the back of a truck near London this week came from poor, rice-growing areas of the country.
The bodies were discovered on Wednesday after emergency services were alerted to people in a truck container on an industrial site in Grays, about 32 km (20 miles) east of central London.
British police said on Saturday that they had charged one man, 25-year-old Maurice Robinson of Craigavon in Northern Ireland, with 39 counts of manslaughter and other offences including conspiracy to traffic people.
Police initially believed the dead were Chinese, but Beijing said the nationalities had not been confirmed and on Saturday a senior British police officer in charge of identification asked for help from Britain’s Vietnamese community.
Chinese and Vietnamese officials are now both working closely with British police, the two countries’ embassies have said. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered government officials to help establish the identities of the victims and look into cases of Vietnamese citizens sent abroad illegally.
Father Anthony Dang Huu Nam, a Catholic priest in the remote town of Yen Thanh in northern-central Vietnam’s Nghe An province, 300 km (180 miles) south of Hanoi, said he believed most of the dead were likely from Vietnam. He told Reuters he was liaising with family members.
“The whole district is covered in sorrow,” Nam said, as prayers for the dead rang out over loudspeakers throughout the misty, rain-soaked town on Saturday. “This is a catastrophe for our community.”
On Saturday evening, Nam led around 500 worshippers in prayers for the dead as they held lit candles in the modest, white-walled church in Yen Thanh.
“We are here to pray for justice and peace, and for the victims of society. We pray for the 39 people who lost their lives on the way to the UK. They are people coming from central Vietnam, our land,” Nam said.
Nam said families had told him they knew relatives were traveling to Britain at the time the container truck was traveling, and had been unable to contact their loved ones.
The British police officer in charge of identifying the victims, Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore, said very few were carrying official identification and that he hoped to identify the dead through fingerprints, dental records and DNA, as well as photos from friends and relatives.
Police have found more than 500 items within the truck including bags, clothing and mobile phones that need to be assessed. Once a preliminary identification has been made, liaison officers will be deployed to support families.
Apart from the man charged, who will appear in court on Monday for an initial hearing, three other people are under arrest in Britain on suspicion of manslaughter and human trafficking. A fourth person is under arrest in Dublin.
In Yen Thanh, Nghe An province, dozens of worried relatives of 19-year-old Bui Thi Nhung gathered in the family’s small courtyard home where her distraught mother has been unable to rise from her bed.
“She said she was in France and on the way to the UK, where she has friends and relatives,” said Nhung’s cousin, Hoang Thi Linh.
“We are waiting and hoping it’s not her among the victims, but it’s very likely. We pray for her every day. There were two people from my village traveling in that group”.
In comments under a photo uploaded to Nhung’s Facebook account on Monday, two days before the doomed truck was discovered, one friend asked how her journey was going.
“Not good,” Nhung replied. “Almost spring,” she said, using a term in Vietnamese meaning she had almost reached her destination.
Other photos on her account show her sightseeing in Brussels on Oct. 18.
“Such a beautiful day,” Nhung posted.
Another person who may have died is Nguyen Dinh Tu, who had been working illegally in Romania, and Germany, where he lost his job.
A few months ago, he asked his wife Hoang Thi Thuong to help him raise 11,000 pounds ($14,000) to cover the cost of an illicit trip from Germany to the United Kingdom.
“I lost contact with him on October 21,” Thuong told Reuters. “I have a big debt to pay, no hope, and no energy to do anything”.
Tu’s father said relatives in the United Kingdom had told him that Tu was inside the truck, and had been planning to pick him up.
“They were supposed to pick him up at the drop-off point but they called and said Tu was in that truck,” Tu’s father, Nguyen Dinh Sat, told Reuters.
“I haven’t heard anything from my son”.
How the victims came to be in the truck is not yet known.
Some 70% of Vietnamese trafficking cases in the United Kingdom between 2009-2016 were for labor exploitation, including cannabis production and work in nail bars, according to a British government report last year.
“Women and girls from rural areas are also considered more susceptible to trafficking,” the report said.
British police sought to reassure anyone living in Britain illegally that they would not be investigated if they came forward to help with the identification.
“If you come to us, we will do all we can to put our arm around you and take you through this process, and establish as quickly as possible whether or not we have your loved involved in this tragic incident, and try and reunite you,” Pasmore said.
Nghe An is one of Vietnam’s poorest provinces, and home to many victims of human trafficking who end up in Europe, according to a March report by the Pacific Links Foundation, a U.S.-based anti-trafficking organization.
Other victims are believed to come from the neighboring province of Ha Tinh, Father Nam said. In the first eight months of this year, 41,790 people left Ha Tinh looking for work elsewhere, including overseas, according to state media.
The province was ravaged by one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters in 2016 when a steel mill owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics contaminated coastal waters, devastating local fishing and tourism industries.
Another suspected victim from Ha Tinh, 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My, had sent a text message to her mother saying she could not breathe at about the time the truck container was en route from Belgium to Britain.
“That girl who said in her message that she couldn’t breathe in the truck? Her parents can’t breathe here at home,” Nam said.
Additional reporting by David Milliken and Kate Holton in London; Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Stephen Coates, Frances Kerry and Alex Richardson