Gave us your email before?
Street kids in Vietnam
Updated: 1 week 3 days ago
Thursday night: I accompany the Blue Dragon Outreach team on the streets of Hanoi from 9pm looking for some particularly young runaway children we have heard about. We're aware that children new to the streets are being targeted for sexual exploitation so we are in a race to find the boys and get them to safety. We find them but they have already been approached by strangers and don't know who to trust. All we can do is advise them on how to find safe accommodation, and how to avoid danger.
Friday night: The team is back on the streets from 8pm, talking to young teenagers who have been coming to the Blue Dragon centre by day, but hanging out on the streets by night. One boy rings with an emergency - he's seen some boys being approached by men he's seen before, and is afraid for them. We don't finish until 2am but are able to get the kids to safety. One of the Blue Dragon boys is particularly brave in looking out for his mates.
Saturday morning: The Outreach leader, Blue Dragon's lawyer and I meet to discuss some of the issues we've been seeing in relation to the street boys courting such risk and facing the dangers that they do.
Saturday afternoon: A call comes through that the police have arrested a member of a child trafficking ring which has been kidnapping girls and selling them to China. The trafficker has confessed to selling a girl who may be either 13 or 14 years old; the police want to know if Blue Dragon might be able to assist with the repatriation of the girl.
We don't have a clear picture yet of where the girl is or what is needed, but there's a 12 hour drive to get to the border so Blue Dragon's lawyer is on the next available bus. I shoot off an email to my great friend Robert at Giving It Back To Kids to say "Hey we've already committed ourselves - can you help pay for this!?" and Robert replies that yes, he'll help out. GIBTK and Blue Dragon have only recently formed an (as yet) informal partnership to share resources on trafficking cases, and this will be our second such case together.
Saturday night: So far, peace and quiet!
Over the years, Blue Dragon has evolved and adapted to Vietnam's rapidly changing economy and society. From time to time we have to take stock of where we are and make sure it's where we need to be. We're usually just-about-right but sometimes have to adjust to make sure we're doing what's needed most.
This year the emerging theme is: Crisis. We're receiving more calls from trafficked children and their families. We're seeing kids on the street in far more danger than ever before. The problems we face are growing more complex, and they seem to be changing/developing more quickly than before.
One of Blue Dragon's strengths is that we can adapt quickly to these changes, and we can respond even more quickly to calls for help. Our challenge is to not only be responsive, but to make an impact on the broader issues to reduce the incidence of crisis.
Since the very first time I met a trafficked child on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City in 2005, Blue Dragon Children's Foundation has rescued 292 children from trafficking.
But that word "rescue" is problematic. I've had people tell me it's too emotive; others have said it disempowers the people Blue Dragon claims to be helping simply by portraying them as victims who need us to rescue them.
Meantime, I've been perplexed by the plethora of organisations in Vietnam which claim to "rescue" trafficked people and yet, as far as I could tell, do nothing of the sort. I'm aware of one other organisation in the south of Vietnam which I believe does rescue girls who have been trafficked, but I am constantly hearing of all the amazing "rescues" that different charities here do.
I think I've figured it out. I'm sure someone will tell me if I'm wrong.
The problem, it seems, is in the definition of "rescue." Being a powerful word, and even moreso in the context of human trafficking (which is a highly emotive issue), different groups have adopted the word but also adapted its meaning.
Some use "rescue" to mean "give shelter;" others mean "provide practical assistance." Others use it to mean "offer help during the legal process." In redefining the word like this, "rescue" has become something safe and sanitised. It's something that can be done from a distance, or in an office, or on a timetable.
This concerns me, because there's a real danger in giving an impression that lots of "rescue work" is being done for people who have been trafficked, and therefore implying that no more help is needed: someone is already taking action, so the situation is under control.
For the sake of clarity, I want to explain what I mean, and what Blue Dragon means, when we talk about "rescue."
For us the word means that we find someone who is asking for help to escape a situation which they are otherwise powerless to leave; and we assist them to escape.
In the case of garment factories in Vietnam, this normally means that our staff work alongside government officials or police to find children being exploited as laborers. We search for the children (the location is almost never known), we take the children out against the will of the factory owner but with the consent of the family, and we take the child home. We are physically there, getting the child out of the factory, not sitting in an office far away.
In the case of girls and young women in brothels, so far in every "rescue case" we have responded to a specific call for help. The girl or a family member has made a plea for assistance, and we have traveled to the place where the girl is being kept against her will, and engineered an escape or demanded that the brothel owner releases her. We then bring the girl back across the border into Vietnam, assist her to make a statement to the police, and then offer a full range of services: medical, shelter, education and training, and so on.
In addition the the 292 kids we have rescued, we have given assistance to about 20 more young people who were trafficked and either escaped or were rescued by police; but we don't count them among the people we have rescued. That's not rescue; that's post-rescue assistance.
In light of all this, I don't use "rescue" as an emotive word. I use it as a factual description of getting someone out of an extremely dangerous situation, who otherwise could not escape.
Blue Dragon's "rescue work" is not about bravery and heroism. It's not about combat training and para-military operations. We find the safest way possible to help a child escape. The "safest way possible" isn't particularly safe, but it's about the least confrontation, the least chance of violence, while still guaranteeing a successful rescue.
And I can see that there's a need, a huge need, for lots more rescue work to be done in this part of the world. Post-rescue assistance is of great importance, but there's no real use in expanding it unless there are more enslaved people being rescued from their brothels and factories.
If we want to stop human trafficking, we need to embrace rescues - real rescues - as an essential step of the process.
On Wednesday and Thursday this week, Blue Dragon staff worked with the Vietnamese police to raid 4 garment factories, all of which are now closed; release 14 children aged 10-16 who were enslaved there; and arrest the 3 factory owners, whose businesses are now closed for good.
Nine of those children are already home with their families. The other 5 begin their journey today and will arrive on Saturday morning.
People often ask me about the families of the trafficked children. Did they sell their kids to make a quick dollar? Do they care what happens to their children?
So far Blue Dragon has rescued 292 children. In only one case has there been a parent who 'sold' a child knowing the dangers her son would face. In the other 290 cases, the parents honestly thought that their children were being taken for training or schooling; or, in some situations, the parents had no idea where the kids had gone and were desperate to find them.
Yesterday one small detail emerged of a 16 year old girl from northern Dien Bien province who had been trafficked to Ho Chi Minh City. Before leaving home, the girl's family made sure she had a mobile phone so they could stay in contact; but as soon as the girl was away from her family, the trafficker took it away. She was in the factory for some months, and not allowed to ring or speak to her family at all.
When Blue Dragon found her, the first thing the girl wanted to do was talk to her mother. The police ordered the factory owner to return her telephone, and turning it on a message came up on the screen:
100 missed calls
That's how worried her family was. They called 100 times; and I suspect that they called even more, but the phone's memory only allowed for it to recall the last 100.
100 missed calls. This is one family that will be very happy to get back together.
... Just a note to say that I originally published this stating that we had found and released 13 children; the actual number was 14. The last child was a girl who had been hidden by the trafficker when he knew we were coming, but the police forced him to 'hand her over'.
Last week I wrote about the experience of reuniting runaway children with their families.
Our latest reunion is of a 13 year old boy from Lang Son province in the north of Vietnam. "Hieu" had been working for some kind of traveling circus which was exploiting him, and his family was uninterested in helping, so the little guy hopped on a bus and headed to Hanoi. We met Hieu on his first night in the city and within a few days accompanied home to see his father and uncle.
It was a long trip to a fairly remote area...
Home isn't a happy place for this boy. Hieu only recently met his father, who had been in prison since the birth of his son, and the uncle who raised him has no interest in his welfare. Their home is very poor, with no comforts whatsoever.
Hieu agreed to stay with his father, but just for a few days. He sees no future at home, and his father doesn't seem to care at all. So Hieu is already back in Hanoi, but this time not on the streets; he's staying at a Blue Dragon shelter while we help him work out what he wants to do.
Kids need a family who love and care for them; it always breaks my heart to meet children who know they don't have that. The look in Hieu's eyes tells me he's already feeling let down by the world. I only hope that Blue Dragon can fill that void he feels, and give him reason to trust the world once more.
The Blue Dragon team is back on the road this morning in search of kids who have been trafficked into Vietnamese garment factories.
Since lunar new year, much of our attention has been on bringing home girls trafficked into Chinese brothels. Simmering away in our minds has been the issue of the many missing children from central and northern Vietnam, both girls and boys, who are enslaved in factories in Ho Chi Minh City.
A few weeks ago we helped one 15 year old boy out; he'd followed a friend to the south from Hue province, and when he got the the factory he quickly realised he'd made a mistake. He hadn't known he was expected to work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week... and that he wouldn't be paid because this was "training"! One of our team was passing through Ho Chi Minh City on his way to reunite a trafficked girl with her family, so he took a detour and got the boy out. The factory owner was refusing to release him unless his family "reimbursed" them for his transport and living expenses - but by now the Blue Dragon lawyers have more than enough experience in dealing with traffickers and factory owners. The young boy is back home now, and won't be making that mistake again!
It's time for us to focus again on the big question of how to end, once and for all, this trafficking of kids into the clothing and textile industry. We don't yet know how many children we will find in coming days, as the information we have about their locations is still very unclear. But we'll be working with the police to find the factories and get the kids home. I hope to have some updates, and some good news, by Wednesday or Thursday.