Essex lorry deaths: ‘My daughter was dead the whole night and I didn’t know’

Grief has shattered Nguyen Thi Phong’s world.

Sobbing, she walks slowly through a cemetery until she reaches the entrance to one of the graves, and emotion overwhelms her.

The pain she carries is unbearable.

As she leans on the grave’s stone pillars to stop herself from collapsing to the ground, she cries “daughter”, again and again.

Nguyen Thi Phong visits the grave of her daughter Pham Thi Tra MyNguyen Thi Phong visits her daughter's grave

Pham Thi Tra My was one of the 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in a lorry container in October last year.

She was 26.

As she lay dying, her mother says she sent a final message home.

“She said; ‘Mum, I think I’ll die suffocated’,” Phong says.

Nguyen Thi Phong visits her daughter's grave

But she adds: “I just thought she was on a crowded train or bus so it was hard to breathe. I just told her to hang in there, I didn’t know the situation was like that.”

Hours later, My’s body would be found with the others in a trailer in Essex, a victim of one of the UK’s worst migrant tragedies.

“She said when she arrived in the morning she’d call,” Phong says.

“I couldn’t reach her but I thought she was still not there yet. I went to the market and some people looked at me with pitiful eyes.

“My daughter was dead the whole night and I didn’t know. My daughter was dead and I didn’t know until I came back that afternoon.”

Nguyen Thi Phong's daughter Pham Thi Tra My was among the 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in Grays, Essex

Dreaming of a better life, My paid her smugglers more than £16,000 to bring her to England.

Her plan was to work in the beauty industry and send money back to her family.

On 3 October 2019, she left her home in Ha Tinh for Hanoi by bus, travelling on to China by car the following day.

After 10 days in China, she took a flight to France from where she would begin the final, fatal leg of her journey.

“Her goal was to make enough money to fix the house for mum and dad. No one thought that bad things would happen,” Phong says.

My’s trip wasn’t a first.

Many other local children had made the journey safely so her mother wasn’t initially worried.

“In my area, many people work abroad,” she says.

“Their family income has greatly improved and nothing bad has happened before so I trusted them. My daughter’s trips from Vietnam to China and France were safe. I had no idea this would happen.”

But this time was different, as another parent says, the traffickers got “greedy” and vulnerable people became little more than products to be shipped.

So My was dehumanised, transported like cargo, until the air ran out.

Nguyen Thi Phong's daughter Pham Thi Tra My was among the 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in Grays, Essex

“We did not know,” her mother sobs.

“If we knew, even if I had to beg, I would forbid her to go.”

Phong and her family are not alone in their grief.

Sorrow echoes across the poor pocket of North Central Vietnam where most of the victims lived.

Working in the market, like Phong, or earning little from fishing and farming, many leave in the hope of getting better wages abroad to support their relatives.

They often borrow huge amounts of money to pay for the trips, unaware of the danger.

“We had to borrow $22,000 but they didn’t pay it back so we are still in debt,” Phong says.

“The family finances have been very difficult. We have to pay the bank interest and my husband’s job is not stable.

“So every month we gather the money to pay the bank and if it’s still not enough then we have to borrow from outside to help.”

No daughter, no money and no way out, the family is trapped in a desperate cycle but Phong is not looking for revenge.

“They’re also just human, I don’t hold any grudge against them,” she says.

“In the end, they were only trying to help my child find a job. Bad luck happened – I know they didn’t plan for it, I even feel pity for them.”

If she could speak to My one final time, Phong says she would ask her daughter to stay in Vietnam and get married.

But it’s too late; dreams have been crushed, futures stolen, lives lost.

For the families left behind, there is no soothing the wounds caused by the traffickers’ greed.

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