Tackling human trafficking in Vietnam

Vietnam’s rapid economic growth has masked long-standing problems of human trafficking, child labor and the illegal sex trade. Organizations such as Pacific Links Foundation are addressing these issues through education, training and the creation of a positive socio-economic narrative.

Pacific Links was formed in 2001 by a group of Vietnamese-Americans from California. Anh Kim Tran, one of its founders, grew up in Vietnam but moved to the US at the age of 20 and worked her way through college. One of five children, Anh’s emigration was a success story that motivated her to help others less fortunate. “All of us that founded Pacific Links knew how lucky we were, and we all knew how important education was for us. Our organization began quite humbly, providing educational training and courses in Unicode, which my husband taught, but after we all returned to Vietnam, we knew that we needed to expand the project. Human trafficking and the poverty it creates is so closely tied to educational opportunities, and we knew we had to make sure Vietnam developed along the right path. So many things have changed in the last few decades, some for the better, some for the worse – you can see it on the streets of Saigon, and we wanted to make sure that further changes are positive ones.”

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In many ways, Vietnam has become a victim of its own development. As cities have grown and rural-urban migration increased, cases of human trafficking have proliferated. Director of Advocacy and Strategic Partnerships, Mimi Vu explains that Vietnam’s uneven economic growth has helped foster the conditions in which human trafficking thrives: “Vietnam is a young and populous country, and the people are thirsty for opportunity; they know that wealth is out there. Unfortunately, education has often not been able to keep up.” For many people, the image of human trafficking is of children sold into modern slavery by friends and relatives, but this is not the full story. “People think that they can best provide for their family by going to work abroad, but they don’t understand the legal ramifications of doing so. Traffickers pose as ‘labor brokers’ promising that a payment of several thousand dollars will open the doors to an easy life in the West.” These brokers provide neither work permits nor documentation, and funnel economic migrants into a global network of illegal activities.

Mimi has just returned from a number of meetings with British companies and government institutions in an attempt to combat this network. “The UK is a common destination. Many Vietnamese people immigrated to Hong Kong in the 1970s, and the refugee camps there were infiltrated by organized crime syndicates. After the handover of Hong Kong a lot of Vietnamese people migrated to Britain and Ireland, and they set up human trafficking networks to supply labor for the drugs trade.”

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Up to 3,000 Vietnamese children are thought to be held in servitude by drugs gangs in Britain, working in marijuana farms or nail salons, and the problem cannot be tackled with penal legislation alone.

In destination countries like Britain, Pacific Links plays a vital role in anti-trafficking strategy. “Trust building is vital when dealing with victims of trafficking, but emergency and social services in destination countries often don’t have the linguistic and cultural sensitivities required to build a relationship,” says Mimi. “Traffickers tell people that if they speak to the authorities their families will be in danger. Victims therefore often run away from the social services that have rescued them. If they are arrested for drug-related offenses they are often isolated when they get out of jail, and find the only way to make money is to become traffickers themselves. Sixty percent of traffickers arrested are former victims themselves, and it’s essential that we break this cycle.”

Pacific Links works closely with social services and police forces across the world, offering face to face and emergency Skype interviews with victims of human trafficking, to put them at ease, assure them that their families have been contacted and are safe, and aid their reintegration into normal life.

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Women as Commodity

In this region, 70 percent of Vietnamese victims of human trafficking are female, in most cases sold into the sex industry or as wives abroad. Trafficking is particularly common across the Vietnam-China border because traffickers take advantage of the less populated streets. Anh speaks of one girl who was kidnapped at 14 and held in China for three years before she escaped: “She was walking home from school and was snatched by two men on a motorbike. It’s so hard to guard against something like that.”

Mimi also highlights the more established familial and community relationships that are abused by traffickers, who utilize the ethnic connections that span national borders. “While girls are rarely at risk from a direct family member, we often see cases where an uncle or a family friend has sold a young girl, or group of girls, getting them away from their family under the pretext of taking them to a show or a festival.” This first contact will only make about USD100, but they are the first step in a vast network of traffickers. “Women have a very high commodity value for human traffickers, as they can be sold as wives or to brothels a number of times, and when they get older are forced to work. Vietnamese victims have been found all over the world, in Ghana, Angola, Europe and China. It is a massive operation.”

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Some do manage to escape, and once they make it back to their communities, Pacific Links oversees and conducts an extensive range of interviews with victims and their families to determine the best course of action. Some prefer to dive back into community life, while others need more time to adjust. For the latter group, Pacific Links runs two long-term shelters that help reintegrate victims back into society. The shelters (located in Lao Cai and An Giang) each house around 30 women who remain in the shelter for two to three years. During this time, Pacific Links encourages vocational training or education, funds health insurance and the development of life skills, and provides legal and vocational assistance to ensure that the women have a stable future once they leave the shelter.

For Anh, it is vital to help the girls regain their confidence. “They need to get back to their lives, to their own selves. They have to sort out their hardships and figure out what they want to do with their lives. This process is different for everybody, and we try and facilitate it with whatever works best for the individual. Recently we started to offer dance and art therapy, an art therapist visits the shelters four times a year.” Art therapy has proved successful and the girls are taking part in the upcoming Sapa Art Festival, which takes place from April 5 to May 5.

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“We originally worked with Adrienne de Geer and Maria Graven, who run the Mark Your Wall project in Saigon,” says Mimi, “and we found that not only is art a therapeutic practice, but that some of the girls have a real passion and talent for art. Adrienne put us in touch with Bridget March, who runs the Sapa festival, and the girls from the Lao Cai shelter are going to produce a large installation telling their story set to the backdrop of Sapa’s rolling mountains where many grew up.” So what began as therapy could well become a career.

Education and training is important to allow women to find their place after becoming victims of human trafficking, but it is also key to prevention. “It is really important to pre-empt the economic motivations behind human trafficking, and to ensure that communities are able to spot and prevent people falling victim to traffickers,” says Anh. In this endeavor, Pacific Links has trained more than 1,500 factory managers and workers to spot and assist at-risk women, and has engaged in community outreach programs that have engaged more than 10,000 people. “Prevention through education and training is really at the heart of what we do. We run several programs – ECCE, ADAPT and MWCD – which focus on education in early childhood, awarding scholarships and the support of vocational development, and the promotion of women as community and economic leaders.” Over the past fifteen years, Pacific Links has awarded more than 6,200 scholarships to at-risk girls, providing funding, textbooks and transport from 6th to 12th grade.

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Mimi is proud of what the women, aided by Pacific Links, have achieved. “One girl has gone on to a four-year university course in Hanoi, which is a huge accomplishment, and others are studying or training at all levels. Since we first started, we have offered training in IT skills, operated programs in conjunction with Chefs Without Borders, and brought various companies to give talks to women and inspire them.” Scholarship recipients also attend an annual summer camp, which includes health workshops, educational workshops (especially in coding and STEM fields), talks from successful female businesswomen, and a variety of mandatory and elective courses that help to stimulate a desire for learning and foster links between local and international companies.

While the global problem of human trafficking has no easy solution, Anh and Mimi are confident for Vietnam’s future. “We have strong partnerships with the Vietnamese government and government institutions all over the world,” says Mimi. “Business communities are also aware of the problem and countless institutions are involved as partners, supporters or funders. Even if their motivation is economic, we can ensure that it makes a human difference.”

Perhaps most importantly, young people in Vietnam are aware of the problem and are self-reflective. Anh, now 64 and happy that her work has provided a foundation for future development, sees Vietnam’s ambitious and educated younger generation as the key to further improvement. “They want Vietnam to prosper, they want to see change and they want to participate in change. They are thirsty for knowledge, and I think that they will make the difference. They will have to fight corruption, fight for better policy, for better education, for better training and for a better future. I do think that the younger generation will find success.”

IMAGES PROVIDED BY PACIFIC LINKS