UK border crossings: 20 years of dying in lorries but still ‘no change’

During the vigil in front of the Home Office, “a Chinese community activist, Jabez Lam, took the floor and recalled that, 20 years earlier, 58 Chinese migrants had died in similar circumstances,” Stephens said.

Customs officers at the port of Dover discovered the bodies Lam was referring to[1] on 18 June 2000. Like the 39 migrants from Vietnam, these were also in a trailer loaded onto a ferry at Zeebrugge.

“The same policies continue to be pursued, so there's obviously a strong resonance between these two events,” Stephens said.

The 39 deaths resonate with future tragedies as well. later. In December 2001, 13 people left Zeebrugge hidden in a container bound, they thought, for Dover. Four days later the container was opened in Waterford, in the south of Ireland. Eight were dead[2], and the rest were perilously close to it.

Trials, but no change

The collective death of 39 Vietnamese migrants in October 2019 triggered police investigations in several countries.

In the UK, this investigation led to the conviction of 11 people[3], including the truck driver, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for manslaughter. Eighteen people were punished in Belgium[4], including cab drivers and the owners of homes through which victims had passed. In Vietnam, four convictions for human trafficking[5] were handed down. Most recently, in November 2023, 18 people were given jail sentences[6] of up to 10 years in France, including several cab drivers.

But, seen from Vietnam, “the death of these 39 exiles didn’t change anything,” Vu said. “The main consequence has been an increase in the cost of the journey.“ Before October 2019 the price to reach Western Europe ranged between £13,000 and £27,000 she said, but now it can reach £43,000.

“The more risks smugglers take, the higher the cost of passage,“ Vu said.

She added that higher prices are further supported by the lesson many prospective migrants have drawn from the tragedy.

“Many Vietnamese wishing to leave the country believe these migrants died because they didn’t pay enough,” she said, “and so arrival in the United Kingdom was not guaranteed.“

And while those 39 people did make it to UK soil, those planning to travel after them can only hope to make it alive.

Explore the rest of the series

  1. INTRODUCTION[7] | 391 deaths in 25 years at the UK borderMEMORIAL[8] | Our cemetery of 391 migrant deaths
  2. PORT[9] | Dying by the ferries in Calais
  3. TUNNEL[10] | Drivers said Eurotunnel ‘a picture of war’
  4. HOMICIDE[11] | Punitive killings in Calais overlooked
  5. POLICE[12] | Police violence ‘rarely punished’ at the border
  6. LORRIES | 20 years of dying in lorries but still ‘no change’

    EXPLAINER[13] | Channel border violence from a UK perspective


  7. BOATS | The path to the ‘small boats’ crisis
  8. SUICIDE | A border designed to create despair
  9. REMEMBRANCE | 25 years of victims: ‘Your borders, our dead’


  1. ^ the bodies Lam was referring to (
  2. ^ Eight were dead (
  3. ^ led to the conviction of 11 people (
  4. ^ Eighteen people were punished in Belgium (
  5. ^ four convictions for human trafficking (
  6. ^ 18 people were given jail sentences (
  8. ^ MEMORIAL (
  9. ^ PORT (
  10. ^ TUNNEL (
  11. ^ HOMICIDE (
  12. ^ POLICE (
  13. ^ EXPLAINER (