How do the words confusion, anger, trust, insight and hope tie together when tackling human trafficking in Vietnam? I explore how these words and human trafficking still continues to be an issue in the region.
A visitor to a foreign country can better see the cultural contradictions and nuances than they can see in their own home.
When a traveler reaches a new land, they are struck by oddities and annoyances that, to the locals, are just normal.
And the same applies for foreigners visiting or living in Vietnam.
- How can a country with such long-term perseverance (think: the American-Vietnam war) also be so impatient (think: the disregard for waiting at traffic lights)?
- How can a country renowned worldwide for its excellent, inexpensive food also suffer significant rates of child malnutrition?
- Why do people ride and drive so recklessly when there are such astounding numbers of injuries and fatalities on the road?
To an outsider, these matters are incomprehensible – but they are no more so than why Britain is tearing itself apart in order to leave the EU, or why the US is wracked with gun deaths, or why the issue of refugees arriving by boat is such a potent topic in Australia.
Because of my work with Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, every day I am faced with one of these perplexing questions:
In a country that has such a strong social fabric and an economy whose growth rate is the envy of the world, why does Vietnam still struggle with human trafficking?
Of course, the question itself is completely unfair. Every country in the world struggles with human trafficking.
But still the question needs to be asked, because in understanding why this occurs, we have a chance at seeing possible solutions.
The very first time that I encountered human trafficking in Vietnam was in December 2005. I was in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City, sitting at a street-side restaurant watching the world go by, when I noticed a teenage boy selling flowers to tourists.
Every time he sold a flower, he would rush to the end of the laneway where two women were squatting on the road watching him. He would hand the money over and then go straight back to work.
That child, a 13-year old boy named Ngoc from Hue, was the first person I had met who was in slavery. He worked about 14 hours a day, with no days off, and survived on a diet of instant noodles and plain rice. His parents – who like their son had never been to school – thought he was studying with foreign teachers and working part-time in a shop.
I was able to get Ngoc free of the traffickers and home to his family, but on visiting his parents’ home (a tin shack on the sand in a typhoon zone), I learned that hundreds of children from Ngoc’s village and surrounding areas were in slavery: some selling flowers, but many in sweatshops. Some were as young as 11.
Standing in a beach community, talking to families who thought their children were going off to study or training but who now don’t know where they are, creates a mix of emotions. Sadness and worry were certainly part of it – but so too was anger.
I was angry.
How could society let this happen? Why didn’t the police stop it? Why weren’t any of the big, well-resourced NGOs addressing this? Why did nobody care?
It was a long time before I realized that my anger was misplaced. It wasn’t that people didn’t care. It was that they didn’t know, or didn’t understand, or weren’t able to act.
At the time, Vietnamese law defined trafficking as something that took place across international boundaries. Technically, this meant it wasn’t seen as trafficking. And as parents had given their permission for the children to go to work, it was seen as a civil matter, not a criminal matter.
The traffickers had spun a series of lies that the children were going off to do some vocational training. Parents, not knowing any better, thought that this hope of an education was preferable to the certainty of grinding poverty at home – so allowed their children to go. Under the law, it was difficult to make a case that a crime had been committed.
Similarly, the vast majority of Vietnamese people who are trafficked abroad are taken by deception. Most cases are not kidnapping, don’t involve the victims being drugged, and the criminals are not your stereotypical men in dark suits carrying guns.
Most cases of trafficking from Vietnam start with a trafficker, who may be male or female and may be any age, forming a relationship with someone they intend to deceive into crossing a border under false pretenses. For most, that border is China.
Blue Dragon receives calls for help every day from families whose daughters, sisters or wives (and sometimes their sons, brothers or husbands) have been trafficked and sold.
Every call is urgent and demands action.
Those who are trafficked walk or drive, apparently willingly, across the border, believing they’re on their way to a job in a restaurant or visiting a boyfriend’s brother or going on a shopping trip.
Their trafficker will have invested substantial time building trust so that they have no reason to suspect that something terrible is about to unfold: they may have even traveled together before; and returned home happily and safely.
Whether we are dealing with cases of trafficking from Vietnam to China or a rural village to a city of Vietnam, Blue Dragon’s response begins with a rescue.
We find the person who is in trouble and bring them home. Weeks, months or even years of after-care then follow: counselling; housing; court representation; medical attention; education; job preparation. We do this on a highly individualized basis.
In 2020, Blue Dragon will reach a milestone of 1,000 rescues.
What is perhaps most significant about this is the body of knowledge that we have gained about human trafficking through the cumulative total of those 1,000 rescues.
What have we learned about the causes of human trafficking? What do we know that will help us begin to understand why this is happening in modern day Vietnam?
- Traffickers work by exploiting a vulnerability.
For some people, that vulnerability may be a need to find a job. For others, it may be a misplaced affection for someone who appears to care for them. That vulnerability may already be there (for example, if the victim is living in poverty) or it may be created by the trafficker.
- A growing economy doesn’t stop human trafficking…
Yes, Vietnam’s economy is flourishing and opportunities for employment grow with every passing year. But not everybody wants to work in a factory. Not everybody knows how to apply for a job on their own. Not everybody has the resources to travel to another province and find a place to stay while looking for employment. This makes it easy for traffickers to offer false hope.
- … It might even make it worse.
One of the greatest vulnerabilities to human trafficking is a very human desire that we all share: the desire to have a better life. In the context of Vietnam, as the economy grows, there is always uneven development. As in any country, most growth occurs in cities; some occur in provincial centers; and out in the remote villages, there may be none at all.
But people know that there are opportunities out there, and they want the same success that they see others having – and traffickers can easily exploit that desire.
- Information can help reduce trafficking – but not always.
People commonly suggest that awareness raising is needed to end trafficking. It isn’t. Everyone is ‘aware’ of trafficking, but there are still two problems. First, knowing about trafficking doesn’t necessarily mean they will know that they are being targeted for trafficking. Keep in mind that the traffickers build trust: they are experts at it. They succeed precisely because their victims don’t know that they are traffickers.
And second, even knowing that there is a risk, some people will still take a chance, believing their chances are better than they are at home.
I’ve spoken with people who have said that they knew there was a danger in going… but staying home meant certain poverty and hunger. They felt that there was no better option.
- Whatever the law is, traffickers will find a way around it.
In 2016, I met some Homeland Security officers from the USA. They specialize in human trafficking and had come to Vietnam to share their experience with Vietnam’s own anti-trafficking agency.
One lesson they shared, which resonated with the Vietnamese experience, was that tightening up laws and bridging loopholes is essential, but traffickers will continually find a way around the law whatever it is.
None of this paint a bright picture for those of us who want to end slavery. We can see that human trafficking is a very human problem: it works on psychology; emotion; manipulation; and cunning. Clearly this is not a problem that will have a silver bullet.
But there is reason for hope.
Thirteen-year old Ngoc, whom I met on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, is a young man now. He’s educated, he owns a house, is married with children – and he works for Blue Dragon. His job is to meet with families and schools around Hue; providing social support to children in hardship; and to investigate any cases of suspected trafficking.
However, his job is not about rescue. It’s now about prevention.
Children from Hue are no longer being trafficked as they once were to sweatshops and the streets. That’s not to see it absolutely never happens, but the cases now are rare. Child trafficking for labor exploitation from Hue is now an exception rather than a common occurrence.
It wasn’t Blue Dragon alone who did this.
We worked with police, government, mass organizations, schools and communities.
Together, we achieved something very rare: an end to trafficking.
If we can do that in one location, then the burning question is:
Can we do it elsewhere?
Click for more information on Sustainable Vietnam Contributor, Michael Brosowski and why “It’s critical that we know that what we build today will serve our children tomorrow”.