Religion ghosts in refrigerated truck

I’m not sure how internationally this news was reported, but last month’s “illegal immigration tragedy” in Britain was the discovery of 39 bodies in a refrigerated truck recently arrived in Essex from Zeebrugge. It quickly emerged that, apart from the scale of the incident, it was unusual in that the victims, first identified as coming from China, were all actually from Vietnam.

Britain’s illegal immigration problem largely follows that of the rest of Europe: the destabilisation of Iraq, Syria and Libya has led to a massive humanitarian crisis in those countries, with resulting mass-emigration. The chaos in the last has also opened up a corridor, and created a criminal infrastructure, for massive economic migration from sub-Saharan countries, which would not have been possible under Colonel Gaddafi’s regime. The causes of those conflicts are, of course, another matter not unconnected with Western politicians.

But for people aged as young as fourteen, and as old as forty-four, to pay traffickers vast sums, and to take such huge risks, to travel clandestinely from the other side of the world raises some questions that nobody in the press seems to be at all interested in asking.

In my working life my practice acquired, around the time I started there, a few familes of Vietnamese “boat-people,” without exception hard-working, intelligent and decent people, who had fled what was in essence political repression by the victorious Communist government. Vietnam’s economy was in bad shape anyway at that time, but our families had not simply fled general economic hardship, but persecution as class-enemies.

In recent decades the Vietnamese economy has recovered by increased foreign trade, to the extent that by 2025 it is projected to be the fastest growing economy, and the 21st largest, in the world. Unemployment is now less than 5%, and the relative poverty rate is now less than China, India or the Philippines. The change began with the relaxation of strict Marxist-Leninist economics in the 1990s, at which point the exodus of refugees also more or less dried up.

All of which leaves the reasons for these 39 people to flee secretly and illegally, via China, for the west completely unaddressed in the press. It is clearly part of an established trafficking route, only publicly revealed because of this one tragedy. The press have spoken of arrests of truck drivers from Ireland, and of apparently equivalent actions by police in Vietnam leading to the arrest of ten people there – whom we assume, though it is not actually stated, to be criminal people-traffickers.

But why flee a country at peace whose economy is booming? The clue – which the US news-monitoring website Get Religion, who have not covered this story, would call a “religion ghost” – is that the press somehow seemed to latch on to a Vietnamese Catholic priest for background as soon as the Vietnamese link was made. The news covered his fears that these victims might be members of local families, which fears were subsequently confirmed.

But why would a priest be the go-to guy on this? The media didn’t say. Vietnam is an officially atheist communist country that discourages religion. But the majority belief, at 54% back in 1987 according to my old copy of Operation World, is Buddhism, though since then apparently many have reverted to “folk-religion. 22% were “non religious” in 1987, and only 7% Catholic, comprising the vast majority of Christians in the country. However there has been a 600% increase in Protestant believers in the last decade, making up another 1% of the population.

The answer is, perhaps, to be found not in the mainstream media, but through a little investigation of more rigorous sources – though it would be just as easy for the BBC to Google “Vietnamese persecution” as it was for me. Even back in 2013 Australia was reporting a 300% increase in Vietnamese Catholics fleeing persecution. And although a new law was due to come into force to protect believers and religious organisations in 2018, the Catholic Herald reported this January that thousands of Catholics lost their homes in a district of Ho Chi Minh City called Loc Hung, bulldozed in an official land-grab:

The majority of the people who lost their homes were Catholic, and some were beaten and arrested on their way to morning Mass on the day of the demolition. At least 10 people who tried to stop the demolitions were detained, and the police have since stated that 20 residents will be prosecuted for obstructing officials…

Loc Hung has a special status which may explain the government’s heavy-handed treatment of the residents. For decades the community has served as a sanctuary for victims of government oppression, including Catholics who migrated to the southern part of the country fleeing persecution in the 1950s. More recently, it has become home to former prisoners of conscience and their families, including Nguyen Bac Truyen, a Hoa Hao Buddhist and a legal activist who provided legal assistance to victims of land grabs and persecuted religious communities. In April 2018 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

This is the kind of stuff one reads about in The Gulag Archipelago during Stalin’s era, which ought to be of some interest to democratic readers. This single outrage is, of course, as much the tip of an iceberg as the deaths of the 39 refugees were. Barnabas Fund reports widespread harrassment of Vietnamese Christians from local and provincial authorities, including attacks on churches, homes and businesses, arbitrary arrest and police brutality, seizure of property, and legal obstructions to the registration of congregations, rendering them illegal and subject to further harassment.

That all this should happen in a Socialist country ought to be expected – it happened from the very start in Soviet Russia under Lenin, is routine in China today, and is taken to its murderous extreme in North Korea. Repression of religion, and especially “bourgeois” Christianity, is integral to Marxism. What is so troubling is that our “free” press has shown itself determined to turn a blind eye to the whole religious background to this incident, which would appear to be the key to understanding why it ever took place.

In the reporting, Vietnam has been treated as if it were a helpful democracy assisting our police in their enquiries, rather than as the same oppressive regime that caused it. Vietnam is now a popular tourist destination, so maybe nobody here wants to rock that particular boat (any more than they do in keeping quiet about the Muslim persecution of Christians in the sunny and non-sinking Maldives).

But there’s more, I think – our press simply has no interest in religious persecution, because it sees itself as enlightened and secular (and therefore probably sympathetic to the problems these religious nuts cause the Vietnamese state). Besides, the “Catholic Church” label needs to be reserved for stories about paedophile priests, and cannot be tarnished by alternative narratives about ordinary folks being persecuted for their gentle faith of love and piety.

It’s a shameful indictment on our understanding of world affairs that none of this is presented for our understanding. But at least I may have prompted you to look a bit deeper than what you heard, or perhaps what you didn’t hear, in the news where you live.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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