Sunday, October 26, 2014

A rapidly growing mess

I was riding a bicycle across Hanoi's famous Long Bien bridge when the boy, "Hieu," appeared from underneath the railway lines.

Long Bien is a city icon, and serves as the rail bridge across the Red River. It's also home to countless homeless children - and adults, too - who find hiding spots in the most dangerous places to keep away from unwanted guests.

I had known Hieu for some time; he'd been at Blue Dragon previously, but then been sent to Reform School and had only recently returned to the city. He was now 14 years old and, reformed or not, he was homeless.

We joined a group of kids who were playing games on the island in the middle of the river. For a couple of hours Hieu played and laughed like any normal boy; he looked tired, but enjoyed the chance to be with friends.

During a break, I quizzed him on how he was doing and how he had survived the past few weeks. Hieu looked a little uncomfortable and said that someone had been helping him. I could see that something was wrong, so I asked the simple question: "Who has been helping you?"

His answer chilled me: "Olivier."

Olivier is the name of a French doctor who is now back in France awaiting trial for sex crimes against children in Vietnam. At the time I spoke with Hieu, he was living and working in Hanoi, and his name had come up in countless disclosures from street children.

Knowing that Hieu was in contact with this man left me feeling physically ill. I quietly vowed to myself that I would do whatever I could to ensure Hieu was safe.

It's now more than a year since Olivier was arrested, and since then just one other man has been arrested for the same crime: a Vietnamese con artist who traveled the northern provinces with a group of underage boys.

Since 2012, Blue Dragon has worked directly with over 60 boys aged under 16 who have been sexually abused. Almost all are boys who came to the city due to problems at home, and found themselves either tricked or coerced into going back to a stranger's house, or to a hotel, for sex. While several of these men are foreigners, by far the majority are Vietnamese.

Over 60 boys have disclosed this information to us; and only 2 men have been arrested.

The city now has a network of pimps, and established meeting places where men target boys who are clearly homeless. Facebook is a much-used tool for men to communicate with their victims, or to send instructions to the pimps. Some of the men involved are powerful people, flaunting their wealth and connections to the children; while others work on the streets themselves.

Hanoi is a dangerous place to be a homeless child. The city has to face up to this insidious problem, or else face a future of being known as a sleazy child-sex destination.

Hieu is safe now; he's been off the streets ever since that day on the bridge. He goes to school, lives in a stable home, and has big plans for a career in hospitality. And yet, not a week goes by that Blue Dragon does not meet at least one more boy caught up in the vicious cycle of sexual abuse.

While we've done all we can so far to keep Hieu and children like him safe, there will be more children tomorrow who are in danger unless someone intervenes in this rapidly growing mess.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hold my hand

This photo was taken in China on Friday by a member of the Blue Dragon Rescue team. 


The girls are Vietnamese teens who were trafficked at different times and by different gangs for sale to the Chinese sex trade. One girl, aged 16, was sold to a brothel. The other, aged 15, was sold as a bride.

Last week, Blue Dragon worked with Chinese police to first rescue the younger girl, get her to safety near the Vietnamese border, then return inland to rescue the girl in the brothel. On Friday, we were back at the border with both girls, helping them to make their formal statements and prepare to cross back into Vietnam and begin the journey home. 

They met on Friday for the first time.

This brings to 352 the number of kids we have rescued from trafficking. Boys and girls, as young as 11, trafficked and sold to work on the street, to slave away in garment factories, to be repeatedly raped daily in Chinese brothels, or to be forced into marriages with complete strangers.

352 is a decent number. But data can easily hide us from the reality of trafficking, which is deeply personal.

It's personal because the impact on a victim's life is something only they can know, and which will live with them forever. No matter how much they say, nobody else can know what it was like to be deceived and sold like a farm animal for another person's profit or pleasure. Most traffickers are known to their victims; they are friends or relatives or associates. They use trust as a weapon, and in so doing destroy their victims' belief in other people. Data deflects us from the intensely personal nature of this crime. Human trafficking, for whatever purpose, is a crime against humanity.

But for all of the agony that these teen girls have suffered, this photo gives us a reason to smile.

Having barely met each other, but being connected by a shared pain and also a shared story of being rescued and set free, the girls are on their way to make a formal police statement. And what are they doing? Hold hands and smiling.

What they have experienced has been horrific beyond imagination, but they are not alone. They have each other, and they have a hope that they will soon go home to see their family and friends, and all the people who love them.

Over recent months, human contact has been brutal and forced. By lightly and naturally reaching out for each other, and holding hands like kids do, these girls have won a victory over their traffickers and all who would do them harm. They may have been beaten, but they are not defeated.

Good on you, girls.Your pain may be deeply personal, but you are not alone, and great hope lies ahead.

Friday, October 03, 2014

The vomit number

When Blue Dragon's rescue team receives a call for help, we start an investigation immediately.

Investigations sometimes take just a matter of hours or days. And sometimes, they take months.

On Thursday, one of our longest running investigations came to an end, when we located 14 children enslaved in 2 garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City.

Among them, there were 8 girls and 6 boys, the youngest just 12. All were from ethnic minority communities in Dien Bien province, a remote area in the country's north-west.

They had been locked away for between 8 months and 2 years. During this time, they had no contact with their families, who thought their children were going somewhere not too far from home for vocational training.

In both factories, conditions were severe: the children were working for up to 18 hours per day under threat of violence. In one factory, a system of surveillance cameras throughout the building added to the children's fear. 


Children from Dien Bien province are being targeted by human traffickers because they are an impoverished and vulnerable population. Their parents, who commonly speak very little Vietnamese, are easy to deceive with promises of a better life for their families. They don't know that their children will be taken 1,200km away and put to work through the day and night as slave labour.



Blue Dragon has been working with the Vietnamese police to find these kids, and the joint raid on the factories was a brilliant example of what can be done to fight this insidious crime.

The problem of child trafficking sometimes seems overwhelming: but hard work and dedication really can result in children being rescued and traffickers being caught.

Since we started this work in 2005, we've rescued 350 girls, boys, and young women, from factories and brothels. All of our rescues are in response to specific calls for help. And every rescue has played out very differently.

Despite working on this case for over 2 months, we feared that we would not find all of the children. On Thursday morning, we had located one of the 2 factories, and so were ready to free half of the children we were searching for. But we couldn't find the second factory; and as soon as we raided one, we knew that the word would get out and other traffickers would scramble to hide their children. We had to find and raid both factories at pretty much the same time, or risk never finding the other kids.

While the police conducted their own search, one of the Blue Dragon team (I'll call him "Lim") took to the streets to look around himself. As the afternoon wore on, he was becoming increasingly agitated:

What if we couldn't find all of the children? How could we take only half home? What would we say to the parents of the missing children? 

Finally, overcome with stress, Lim found himself vomiting by the side of the road. It was all just too much.

But as he picked himself up, something strange caught his eye: a phone number scrawled onto a wall.

In Vietnam, it's common to see phone numbers on walls - contractors advertise their services this way - but this phone number was not like those. It was handwritten; and its prefix was for Dien Bien province.



Still feeling sick, Lim took out his phone and rang the number. Somebody at the other end picked up the phone and said: "Hello, this is Dien Bien police..."

We still have no idea who wrote that number, or why. We can only presume that an escapee from a factory in the area at some time needed to remember the number, or maybe put it there for others to find. We simply don't know. But finding that number told Lim that we were close. He was in the right area. He called the police to come immediately; within half an hour they had located the second factory.

All 14 children could now be rescued.

Today, the factory owners are in custody and the traffickers are being sought. And most importantly: the 14 children have just had the best night's sleep of their lives, and are thinking only of their desire to get home to their families.

Once they have made their statements to the police, the children will commence their long journey home with Blue Dragon staff by their side. We'll meet their families and find out how we can help to ensure their villages are no longer targets for the traffickers.

I'm sure that much work lies ahead - and that it will all be worth it, to give these 14 children their new chance at childhood.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Bao and the DJ

A few months ago, I had never heard the name 'Hardwell.'

I had no idea that he was the world's Number 1 DJ, and I hadn't even heard of electro house music.

And yet, on Sunday last week, I joined a crowd of 13,000 - mostly young Vietnamese - to pack out a stadium in Saigon and 'make some noise' under the spell of Hardwell.

It was an amazing show; absolutely full on with lights and video stunning the crowd. But to be honest, I wasn't there for either the music or the show.

I was there with a 16 year old Blue Dragon boy, Bao, who sees Hardwell as his idol.

Bao has had a tough life. He doesn't talk about it much at all, but life has not been easy. He's moved from home to home, he's quit school, he's faced a lot of struggles.

And yet Bao has kept right away from trouble. Most teens in Hanoi in his position would have quickly fallen in with the wrong crowd, joined a gang, and taken to motorbike racing at night. But not Bao. He made a personal commitment to me about 3 years ago that he would stay out of trouble, and he has.

Instead, he's taken to music as his way of expressing himself. A brilliant DJ named Luke spent time with Bao, teaching him all the basics and letting him find his own 'musical voice.' Despite being only 16, Bao is now an accomplished DJ with a mastery of all the technical skills that any DJ has.

When Hardwell was announced as coming to Vietnam to play a huge gig, Bao straight away knew that he wanted to go... but being at the other end of the country, that seemed unlikely. However, Luke knew the organisers of the concert, and they invited Bao to not only attend, but to meet Hardwell in person!

So Bao and I spent the weekend in Saigon. We even had the unexpected treat of being invited to stay at the Caravelle Hotel, one of the best hotels in the city! Unbelievable!

The big moment came when Bao and I were accompanied backstage to Hardwell's room. Bao's heart was just about beating out of his chest - this was his dream come true!



And Hardwell didn't disappoint. He was incredibly kind, taking time to chat with Bao and find out about his life. It all went by too quickly, though, and soon we were back out in the crowd.



But those moments will live with Bao for a very long time. He has a new confidence and inner strength now: he has looked his idol in the eye, shaken hands, and exchanged smiles. Nothing's impossible now.

Electro house DJ parties may not be quite my thing, but I was more than happy to spend a night being overwhelmed by noise and flashing lights for the joy of seeing Bao at the top of the world.

Often my blog is a place for me to share the stories of hardships and sorrow. But today, Bao's story is one of great happiness and hope. Through the tough teenage years he's kept on track and worked toward a goal; now he's inspired to dream big and maybe, just maybe, become a famous DJ himself.

And it makes me think: If Bao, with all his troubles, can reach for the stars, then what excuse do I have? 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Test Case

The sex trafficking and sexual assault of boys in Vietnam are issues that have been snowballing over the past 2 years. Blue Dragon has been coming across new cases every week; some weeks, we meet 3 or 4 boys who have been abused. Their stories are painful and heartbreaking, without exception.

This week, a story in the local media has garnered significant attention: a 14 year old deaf and intellectually impaired boy in Nghe An province (north-central Vietnam) was tortured and brutally raped by a neighbour. Identified only as "T," the boy is in a state of shock and pain; doctors and police alike have been unable to understand what has happened and their own limited experience of such cases means they don't know where to start.

The accused rapist is on the run, and T is in hospital being treated.  His parents are desperately poor and aren't even sure how they will pay the hospital bill. The Vietnamese media, not being very sensitive to privacy concerns, have published multiple stories featuring photos of the boy and his bloody injuries. (In case you want to know more about the story, the article with the least-intrusive image is here. It's in Vietnamese, but online translations can give you the general idea).

In short: T is in a desperate situation and his family is deeply distraught.  Their world has come crashing down around them.

Seeing how difficult this case is, and having experience of working with abused boys, Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer, Mr Van, has today traveled to Nghe An to meet the family and talk with the police and doctors about the case. This afternoon, we have agreed to represent T in court, once the rapist is caught, and we are working with the police to lay a charge of sexual assault, even though the law is unclear on this point. (Vietnamese law doesn't clearly recognise that males can be the victims of sexual assault; so in this case the offender can be charged with assault, but not rape).

While our hope is to have the rapist charged as such - and not only for the violent physical assault he committed - we also need to get this family some material support. Their situation is dire.

By getting involved like this, we're taking a step into the unknown. We can't even be sure the accused offender will be caught, but we have to give it our best. T and his family need, and deserve, a helping hand.

It's equally important that the police in this case can see the bigger picture here: any person who rapes a child cannot be allowed to get away with it, whether the victim is a boy or a girl. 

In some ways, this is a test case to make sure an abused boy can be afforded full legal protection. But it's also a real case about a kid who has had his life messed up and is in desperate need.

And so I'm taking the unusual step in my blog of asking for help. We're estimating that about $3000US will be needed for immediate medical help, for the costs of legal representation, and for some decent medium-term support for T once he gets through this ordeal.

If this is something you can help with, head over to the Blue Dragon website and make a donation - any amount will make a difference.

If you're using PayPal, choose "Justice for 'T' Campaign" in the drop down list. If you're donating by bank transfer or through AFAP (for Australians who would like tax deductibility), please send an email to chi@bdcf.org so that our staff member, Ms Chi, knows your donation is for T.


I'll post updates in coming days and weeks about how T is faring, and how the legal case progresses. There are just too many injustices in our world. This is one that I hope we can do something about.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fairytale ending

Could it be true?

Could we really have such a fairytale ending?

In late 2005, Blue Dragon met a 13 year old boy selling flowers on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. That boy, Ngoc, had been trafficked by gang of women who forced him to work through the night, taking everything he earned and beating him if he failed to sell enough.

Ngoc was the first victim of trafficking we had ever met, and so became the first trafficking victim we rescued.

As we investigated how Ngoc had been trafficked, we discovered an extensive problem of child trafficking for labour throughout the province of Hue in central Vietnam. Several months later, we set out on our first "rescue mission" to bring home a group of children trafficked by that same gang.

Among the group was one young girl named Bich Ngoc - the first girl we rescued from trafficking.

Yesterday, with a day of noisy parties in a village in central Vietnam, Ngoc and Bich Ngoc became husband and wife. The first boy we ever rescued from trafficking and the first girl we ever rescued from trafficking are now a family.


Both Ngoc and Bich Ngoc work in a restaurant in Hanoi; they are a fine young couple, supporting their families back home in the countryside, as is the culture, while also saving for their future lives together.

If ever we need evidence that rescuing trafficked children has a long term impact, surely this is it. Even I would never have dreamt of such a happy ending.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The danger in staying safe

In recent months I have been writing about the incredible dangers that Hanoi's street kids face: in particular, the danger of being trafficked and sexually exploited.

So far this week, Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team has met 3 new homeless boys. Two have already been sexually abused, and are now in our care.

The third has managed to avoid the traffickers and pedophiles by living on a bridge, in a hiding spot so dangerous that even our Outreach staff were afraid when they went to see... And given the dangers that our Outreach staff routinely face, that really says something.

Below are some pictures to tell the story better than words can.

This first photo is a view over the side of the bridge, looking down at the entrance to the hiding spot, about 8 metres above the river. 


And this is a shot taken inside the 'living quarters' where 3 or 4 homeless kids have been living.


To escape the dangers on the streets, the kids are hiding in places that put their lives at very great risk. This is a terrible situation, and one that we cannot sit back and accept.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An arrest and a rescue

"Bin" and "Thay" are teen girls, not quite 15 years old; and yet already have been through a hell most of us will never know.

Each was taken separately. Although they are both from Ha Giang province in northern Vietnam, they didn't know each other before they met in the most horrible of circumstances: a brothel in China.

Their trafficker was a woman (pictured), a member of a gang that routinely traffics underage Vietnamese girls to China and sells them for sex. The trafficker used the same tricks to get both Bin and Thay across the border.

The trafficker writes out her confession in a police station. 

The girls are from outlying districts of the province, and so were heading in to the main township to prepare for the new school year. The trafficker met them at the bus station, showered them with kindness and took them for a meal. Finally, she called on a "relative" - another trafficker - to go and buy them some new clothes... and instead of heading toward town, they crossed into China and were handed over to more gang members.

What happened to them next is deeply troubling.

Bin's "virginity" was sold several times; she was stitched back up and re-sold after each rape. She was then sold to the brothel. Altogether, Bin was in the hands of the traffickers for 12 days.

Thay was taken first to a distant district in China where she was handed over to a brothel; but Chinese police came close to finding her and so she was moved back closer to Vietnam, where she ended up in the same place as Bin. Thay lived through 25 days of this hell.

Both girls were rescued by Chinese police on Sunday night, acting on information sent by the Vietnamese police. They are now back at home safely with their families.

"Bin" and "Thay" back in Vietnam, on their way to make statements to police. 

This trafficking ring is one that Blue Dragon has encountered before. Earlier this year, we were involved in the repatriation of 2 teen girls who jumped out of a window to escape a brothel. While the girls made it home OK, their traffickers have been evading police - until now.

Over the weekend, we had a call from the Ha Giang police informing us that the ring was back and was about to traffic some new victims. Our team headed straight up to the remote province to join in the search for the traffickers; it was a long trip but we found the woman in the early hours of Sunday morning. Once in the police station, she confessed everything and gave up details of where Bin and Thay were, enabling the Chinese police to bring them home and arrest the brothel owners.

Since then, 2 other ring members were caught and 2 more are on the run. They don't have much time left: they'll be caught for sure.

Later this year we will represent Thay and Bin in court, when their traffickers finally face trial. Seeing justice done is an important part of the healing process, and both Bin and Thay will need an awful lot of healing in the weeks and months ahead.
 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The ghost and the gang

In the past month, Blue Dragon's Legal Advocacy team has represented two children in court. Although they were both cases of sexual abuse, they were completely separate matters.

The first case went to court in July. A 44 year old man, Lan, was sentenced to 4 years in prison for abusing underage boys. He was caught back in March, when my team had information about Lan being in a hotel with a 13 year old boy, "Nam." We called the police, who raided the hotel and caught the man and his pimp, who will go to court in a separate trial soon.

Blue Dragon had known of Lan for over a year; he was a con artist, posing as a fortune teller while traveling around Vietnam with at least 3 boys by his side at all times. Although he kept a steady group of boys, he also picked up new boys along the way - homeless kids or children living in extreme poverty - to abuse them for a night and then throw them out.

Lan moved from hotel to hotel continuously, using fake ID cards to avoid capture, and the March raid on his hotel room was the first time we had ever laid eyes on him. Despite knowing 7 of his victims, Lan had made himself almost impossible to find. Among our staff, we nicknamed him "The Ghost," because every time we came close to locating him, he seemed to vanish. But not this time.

The second case went to court today. The accused were a gang of youths who had entrapped and raped a 13 year old girl, "Hien," after finding her homeless and penniless at one of Hanoi's lakes.

Blue Dragon met Hien on the street the day after she had been attacked and took her straight to the police. The gang was known to us and they were easy to identify and catch. The shock, though, was that 2 of the offenders were children themselves; and one of them, arguably the ringleader, was a 13 year old girl. These 2 kids are too young to even be charged, and yet both are notorious in the area for theft, dealing drugs, and a range of petty crimes.

The convictions for the gang members varied considerably. While the 2 children will be sent to reform school for 2 years (as they are now both aged over 14), one of the young men was sentenced to 18 years in prison. That's how serious the crime was.

 The gang in court: Wednesday August 20, 2014

Protecting, sheltering, and defending Vietnam's children is a part of Blue Dragon's work that has grown over time. Not only do we deal with many more cases now than just a few years ago, but the cases are far more serious in nature. Often they are very dark.

Nam and Hien have both been through incredibly traumatic experiences, and the court cases were stressful times for them both. But for what it's worth, they have had justice: their abusers have been detained and sentenced.

As I wrote last week, there's no doubt that Vietnamese society is under pressure and that children are feeling it the most. We have no choice but to hope that things can, and will, get better.