Friday, March 27, 2015

News Roundup: March 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world. This month, slavery has received significant media attention.

- Babies are advertised for sale online in China...


- ... and a film maker reflects on his own experience of human trafficking there.

- The rescue of a Vietnamese woman trafficked to China is described in this report.

- A British crackdown on human trafficking leads to the discovery of young Vietnamese women trafficked into beauty parlours.

- The Modern Slavery Bill is close to being passed as law in the UK.

- Cambodia continues to struggle with trafficking for forced labour and the sex trade.

- The Economist takes a look at slavery in supply chains.

- And this article explores the use of slavery in the fishing industry.

www.bluedragon.org

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Comeback

"Hong" grew up in a small town on a high mountain in north-west Vietnam. She had never travelled far from home until the day one of her friends - a woman who lived just down the road - told her about a high-paying job as a mushroom farmer in China.

Hong was excited to have a job opportunity for the first time in her life. But much to her horror, there was no farming job at all: her "friend" had arranged to sell her to a Chinese family, where both the father and the son used her as their bride.

As difficult and terrifying as this life was for Hong, she succumbed to it until something even worse happened. She fell pregnant to one of the 2 men, and the family announced that they wanted her to abort the unborn child.

After all the pain and anguish that Hong had been through, this was too much; she decided that she wanted to have this baby, that her son or daughter should have a chance at life. In desperation, Hong cried out for help; the Blue Dragon Rescue Team went in to China, found Hong, and brought her home.

"Tuan" grew up in very different circumstances, but also with great hardship. He's now just 14 years old, but was orphaned as a child, grew up in central Vietnam in extreme poverty, and in 2013 went to work over 600km from home in a factory. He went because he thought he had no other choice.

Life was bleak at home, but it was worse in the factory, where he worked up to 18 hours a day in dreadful conditions. But then in 2014, Blue Dragon visited the factory where Tuan was working, learned his story, and brought him home.


How do young people like Tuan and Hong ever get their lives back on track? Is it even realistic to think that they might have a normal life again after experiences like these?

In all the time I have been in Vietnam, one of the constant surprises has been the resilience of the young people we meet. Despite the extraordinary hardships that they may be in at the time we first encounter them, many of the girls and boys make the most unlikely comebacks, and find a way to carry on with life.

Hong is living in her village once again, and is now the proud mother of a little boy. Her son, conceived in the worst of circumstances, has the most loving mother that any child could have. Blue Dragon has just built a house for Hong, as her own house was in great disrepair, and we are in contact with her just about every week. She's working from home, thanks to an inexpensive sewing machine, and has the support of her community. A visitor to her village would never guess the horror that Hong has lived through.

And young Tuan is also back on track. He's in Grade 5 now, living back in his village with an aunty, and he tells us that he loves studying art, IT and English. A couple of  weeks ago, he received a certificate from his provincial government for his graphic design work. How amazing is that!



Not every young person like Tuan or Hong is able to make such a comeback - some take many years to repair the damage that has been done to them, and some might never fully recover. But there is hope, strong hope, that kids who have been through the worst of the worst can still turn their lives around.

And if there is hope, then aren't we obliged to give them that chance?

www.bluedragon.org

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What can be done

Just a month ago, I wrote about my own sense of despair in some of the situations that Blue Dragon faces with street kids in Vietnam: in particular, the aggressive pedophile rings that are targeting homeless boys in the cities.

The last couple of weeks, though, have been greatly encouraging.

Our success in several significant rescues is a terrific sign that it's all worthwhile. First we brought back a 16 year old boy from a 'massage parlour'; then we stopped 4 buses taking a total of 56 ethnic minority people to be sold into slavery across the border; and then we rescued a 7 year old girl who had been kidnapped - the first time we have come across such a case.

In each of these cases, the traffickers have been identified and arrested. That translates to a whole lot of future trafficking victims who are now safe.

I'm in Australia at the moment, here to attend several important events including a trivia night in Sydney and a major function in Melbourne organised by Roll'd, the Vietnamese food chain. Both of these events - and another coming up in Brisbane on Friday March 27 - are to raise money for Blue Dragon's work in Vietnam. The Roll'd event last week had the specific goal of funding the construction of a boarding home in remote Dien Bien province, so that rural ethnic minority kids have somewhere to live while they study and don't have to drop out of school. (Roll'd will be raising more money for this at their outlets during May - stay tuned!)

All of this helps me to remember that, as terrible as things can be, there is always hope. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by all the trafficking cases in Vietnam and around the region: in reality, there is so much human trafficking that nobody has any idea of how widespread the problem is.

But the events of these past few weeks serve as a reminder of what can be done. We don't have to sit back and accept these terrible events and situations. There really is something we can do, if only we make the effort.

www.bluedragon.org

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Kidnapped, aged 7

7 year old "Thi" has had a terrifying 2 weeks.

Thi is a H'mong girl from Dien Bien province; her home is a tiny village, nearby the one pictured below, way off the beaten track in the mountains close to China.



A village in the commune from which Thi was taken

Two weeks ago, Thi was playing in the fields when a friendly neighbour approached her with sweets. Thi knew the woman well; she lived just a few houses away and was well known in the village.

But the neighbour had been offered money to kidnap a girl and take her into China, where a H'mong Chinese family was waiting. Many details are yet to be revealed: we don't yet know how much money she was sold for, or what the family intended to do with this girl.

News of the kidnap only reached us on Monday afternoon; the family lives far from police and, with no formal education, didn't know what to do. But by Tuesday morning we had a plan in place, and late on Tuesday the girl was back in Vietnam with us.

Working with police, we set a trap in which we pretended to buy back the child. There are some details we can't yet disclose, as more arrests will be made, but the trafficker from the village is already in custody.

And most importantly: Thi is home.

She arrived back in her family home in the early hours of this morning, for an extremely emotional reunion.


Thi walking home with her father


This case may be our most important yet: so much was at stake, and the delay of 2 weeks before any action was taken reduced our chances of bring little Thi home.

We're all glad to have brought Thi back; but we are nowhere near as pleased as her family is. As for Thi herself, she's exhausted and frightened, and still doesn't understand much of what has happened. Hopefully she doesn't realise how badly this story could have ended.

www.bluedragon.org

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The note

Usually when we talk about Vietnamese kids being trafficked to China, we're talking about girls and young women who have been taken by deception and sold to brothels or into forced marriages.

But today we dealt with a totally new situation that we have never seen before: a Vietnamese boy who appears to have been trafficked into China for sex.

Some details are still unclear, but what we know is this:

Sixteen year old Sung is an ethnic minority boy from northern Vietnam. Until last week, he had never been more than 20km from his village in the mountains; he had never seen a city or the sea. But some people came to visit his village and talked about the great job opportunities that lay just over the mountain. Dreaming of adventure, Sung and 6 other males from his village went along.

Sung is a bright boy studying in Grade 10; he can speak a little English and gets good results at school. But he had no idea that he was being taken to China, and once he got there he was shocked to realise how far he was from home.

He and another boy were taken to work in the city, while the older males were told that they would go to work in a forest.

Sung and his friend were - apparently - taken to a male massage parlour. I say 'apparently' because Sung is so innocent to the world that he doesn't even know the Vietnamese word for 'massage'. He hasn't yet told us the full story, but he says that what he saw there terrified him, and within a day he had found a way to escape.

Not knowing where he was, Sung walked for 2 days through China. With no money or food, he was increasingly fearful and desperate. Nobody could understand him, so he found a notepad and pen and wrote out his message in Vietnamese and English:



I am Vietnamese
I [want to] go to Vietnam
My name is Sung
I am 17* year old

Sung then approached a friendly-looking Chinese woman on the street and handed her the note. She took him to the police, who called their superiors, who in turn called Blue Dragon Children's Foundation in Vietnam.

Today we travelled in to China to meet Sung and bring him home. The team has just crossed back in to Vietnam, and we hope to have Sung back with his family by Saturday night.

Sung is furiously hungry, and thrilled to be safe. He needs some time to think about what he has been through, and we are confident he will tell us in his own time, but it does seem that he is physically unharmed.

While we are not certain that Sung was being trafficked for sex, there is no other likely explanation for what has happened. This is a disturbing development, if true, and will add another layer of complexity to the fight against human trafficking. It also means that we need to find his friends as soon as possible; for that we will work with the Chinese police.

Sung has been through a terrible ordeal, and may take some time to recover from this experience.
The one saving grace is knowing how far, far worse this could have turned out for this boy.

* While Sung says he is 17, he is still only 16. Vietnamese people often calculate their age with an extra year.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Home and safe

Lots of great news from Blue Dragon this week. 
 
Followers on Facebook will know that we had 2 separate breakthroughs in the fight against human trafficking. A tip-off from a community member in Dien Bien province - a remote area in north-west Vietnam - alerted us to a major trafficking ring planning to take 100 people to China.
 
The plan was to take them in smaller groups, and the first of those groups set out on Thursday with 27 people. They were all ethnic minority citizens, as young as 15 and up to about 30 years old; both males and females. and all believed they were going to well paying jobs. In fact they were to be sold as slave labour to illegal factories and brothels, where they would be held indefinitely. The traffickers were to be paid $10,000 for this shipment of human cargo.
 
Blue Dragon passed info on to the police and then coordinated with them to stop the bus long before it got to the border. The traffickers are now in custody and their 27 victims are safely home, still shocked by what happened.
 
But the ring was not deterred. Their second contingent still thought it could get away with taking more people on Sunday. This time they were much more prepared: they spread misinformation about their route, they took the mobile phones off all the people once they were on board the private bus, and they changed vehicles along the way. What they didn't know was that one of their victims was in contact with Blue Dragon the whole time - someone who knew exactly what was going on.
 
 
 
The mini-van used to traffic 16 ethnic minority people to China on Sunday
 
 
This time, we followed the bus with 16 victims to the border and waited for the traffickers to try to cross. By working this way, the police will be able to lay much heavier charges against the trafficking ring. And so we followed the bus all the way to the border with China, at which time Vietnamese police were able to stop them and arrest the traffickers. They could not believe their bad luck - they were so confident that they had done everything to stay undetected.
 
Their arrest revealed critical new information: 2 more buses were also heading to the border, with a total of 17 more victims from another province. These traffickers were in the process of taking not 16, but 33 people who would be sold as slave labourers and sex workers in China.
 
The 33 victims are tonight with police, and will start heading back to their homes tomorrow. We clearly have a lot of work to do in these communities educating people about taking up 'unbelievably good' job offers far from home. The people in these remote regions often have very low levels of education and can be desperate for chances to earn money; they are easy to deceive. Believing that they were going as a group gave them a false confidence; and of course they all had their mobile phones with them, so thought they could call for help if needed.
 
All 56 people are now safe, and we hope they will share the lesson they have learnt with their communities. Surely the trafficking ring has been brought to its knees now.
 
 
Meantime in Hanoi, Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team has also been busy meeting homeless children. We find that they come to the city for many different reasons, including poverty at home or violence within the family. One young guy, "Tung", turned up in Hanoi about a week ago. Tung is 15 years old, and we could see straight away that he's a really good kid. He had come to Hanoi to earn money to help his mother, but found himself sleeping rough and being approached by the gangs and pimps who target the city's homeless boys.
 
Tung stayed out of trouble, though, and we met him early in the week. He was too shy at first to tell us about himself; he feared he would get in trouble at home, as he had left without telling anyone what he was doing. By the weekend, Tung agreed for us to contact his parents, and his mother came in to the city on Sunday to meet us and bring her son home. Mum was worried sick, and so deeply relieved to have her son back. Tung is happy, too, and will be back at school on Monday. (Turns out he is in a class for gifted students).
 

Tung (not his real name) and his mother at Dragon House in Hanoi

Despite the many difficult situations we encounter, it's great to see that we can still help kids to turn things around. Street kids and victims of human trafficking alike face terrible dangers. But for all the bad that happens, there's always hope for a happy ending.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Shining

Following a fairly quiet week at Blue Dragon, we've had an eventful weekend.

Since Friday evening, we've been inundated with problems: a gang of pimps twice attacking kids from our shelters, an Asian sex tourist ring targeting underage boys we know, and on and on. So much so that I'm looking forward to Monday morning to put the weekend's headaches behind us!

But through this series of incidents, we've also seen some of the Blue Dragon kids show incredible courage and empathy.

Close to midnight on Friday, one of the boys in our care - "Son" - received a message from a girl he knows. She was terrified: some men had apparently abducted her and a friend, and they were locked into a room somewhere in Hanoi. As far as we know, the building was a brothel and the girls were being trafficked. They had no idea where they were or what was going to happen, but were able to use a smartphone to send messages through Facebook.

Son alerted our staff, who started communicating with the girls, but they suddenly went silent - we suspect the abductors had come back. We had pretty much no information at all that would enable us to find the girls, so our next step was to contact their families... but we didn't know who they were.

At this point, Son, who is only 17 years old, offered to help. He got on his bicycle and rode around the city to find other friends of the girls who knew where they lived, and then went to their homes to let them know what was happening. The families were in a panic, but they had an idea of who might have been behind the abduction. We don't know yet what they did, but by Saturday morning the two girls were safely home. Hopefully by the end of Monday we will have the full story.

If Son had not responded to his friends' message, or gone to find their families, we don't know what would have become of the two girls - but we can certainly imagine. It was close to 2am before Son finished and returned home, and because of his intervention the girls are now safe.

Later in the weekend, another of the Blue Dragon kids stood up for a friend in need. A former street kid named "Tu" has been living at home in the countryside but had some trouble with his family, and not knowing what to do he returned to Hanoi. Tu didn't want to tell us because he's a shy kid and fiercely independent - he wanted to work this out on his own.

But one of the Blue Dragon boys, "Nam," found out what was happening and went straight to the Long Bien Bridge, where Tu was hanging out in an internet cafĂ©, to make sure he was safe. Nam encouraged Tu to come back to Blue Dragon's Outreach House; and although he was reluctant initially, Nam convinced him and they went back together to stay there for the night. Our Social Workers are involved now, and we hope to help Tu sort out the problem with his family in coming days.

If not for Nam's concern for his friend, Tu would have spent the night on the streets; and we know that homeless kids are extremely vulnerable to predators at the moment. Nam's intervention may have saved his friend from a pretty awful fate.

The Blue Dragon kids aren't always angels, but we see some outstanding leadership and compassion from many of them, both boys and girls. My team and I share a belief that caring for others is always worthwhile, and seeing the kids we help follow in our footsteps is a heart warming experience.

Most of the kids we meet have had terrible life experiences - that's why they come to Blue Dragon. For them to have an opportunity to do something good, and to really shine, is both a major step in their recovery and a wonderful opportunity for them to show that they are much more than just victims of circumstance.

Friday, February 27, 2015

News Roundup: February 2015

An occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world.

- The UK continues to struggle with the issue of Vietnamese children being trafficked in to the country to work in cannabis factories.

- Moving on from 'awareness raising', Thai citizens take anti-trafficking into their own hands.

- China rescued 43,000 victims of trafficking last year...

- ... but bride trafficking to China won't be stopping any time soon.

- An academic study has been released on the health impact of trafficking for forced labour (and here's a newspaper article about it).

- Child abuse caught on camera at a Vietnamese orphanage.

- Could there be links between climate change and child slavery?







Sunday, February 22, 2015

The year of (not) winning

The Year of the Goat has begun; and I for one am glad that the Year of the Horse is behind us.

At the start of 2014, I quietly decided that it was to be the Year of Winning. Readers of this blog will know that in the past couple of years Blue Dragon has been increasingly struggling with the issue of pedophiles in Hanoi exploiting street boys.

Pretty much every single boy who turns up in the city, escaping fractured families or poverty in the countryside, is met by a pedophile or one of their pimps within hours of arriving. Some of these men have deliberately targeted children who are at Blue Dragon and other charities, while most just hang around in the parks and internet cafes where homeless children tend to gather. Increasingly they are using social media to trawl for vulnerable children, meaning that their reach is close to limitless.

A year ago I determined that 2014 was to be the year that we got on top of the issue here in Hanoi and brought it back under control. I really believed that we could.

But we didn't. We didn't win.

At times we felt that we were incredibly close. At times we were sure we couldn't fail. But the year has passed, and the problem remains.

Kids who are caught up in this horrible trade are deeply confused and tormented; they want to escape the cycle of abuse but are steeped in shame at what is happening to them. They want to accept our help, but don't believe in themselves and don't think they are worthy of our kindness. Many act in self-destructive ways and take to using methamphetamines; the underlying problem is that they hate themselves and believe they deserve nothing good.

Even now, there are boys in Blue Dragon who only recently left the streets and are still being approached - in person and through Facebook - by the pimps and pedophiles who want to exploit them. It's unbelievably hard for the kids to be trying to move on with their lives, while their exploiters live just hundreds of metres away, in some cases.

And then there are the kids who gave in, who went with the abusers thinking they would make some quick money and then be done with it or were duped into going back to someone's house to sleep and ended up being raped. Ashamed and humiliated, they disappeared into Hanoi's seedy underbelly and gave up their hopes and dreams for the future. These are kids as young as 13 years old.

I wanted us to defeat these abusers so that we could protect the children, but at times it feels like everything is lost. Even now, there is a terrible frustration in knowing who these abusers are and not being able to stop them.

And yet, we have had some beautiful victories along the way. Many kids who were ensnared in the pedophile rings broke free and have settled into our shelters and homes, or returned to their own families. Some took months to calm down and start leading a stable life; some are yet to fully make the transition. Each has been through a tremendous inner struggle, so watching them transform into happy, smiling teens has been an amazing experience.

We've had great success, too, in starting to win support from local officials and police. Until now, this problem has been completely unknown in Hanoi. Indeed, many people appear shocked when we raise with them the issue of boys being sexually abused. But every single official we have approached and spoken to has expressed support and agreed that things have to change.

The great challenge is that Vietnamese law currently does not recognise that boys can be the victims of sexual abuse. In March, when our work resulted in the arrest of one of Hanoi's serial pedophiles, the man was charged with indecency, rather than sexual abuse, and so received a relatively light sentence (4 years) compared to his horrific crimes.

We've embarked on a plan to have that law revised, possibly within the first half of this year. We are working with police, the National Assembly, and the media to enable them to see the issue up close, as we do. And most importantly, we have put every last drop of our energy into caring for the kids who have been impacted by this abuse. At times it has been massively draining and seemingly futile, but it is with the individual kids that we have had both the greatest joys of success and the greatest sorrows of failure.

So we did not win, as I had hoped, but neither have we lost. We've made progress, and are even more determined - and knowledgeable - than a year ago. The men who exploit street kids might think they can get away with this forever, but they're wrong.

One of my greatest fictional heroes is Mulder from the X-Files, who failed repeatedly but persisted because he believed in his cause. One episode finished with him laying in a hospital bed barely alive, after a long journey in his attempt to save the world. When he awoke, his partner Scully asked: "Did you find what you were looking for?"

His answer: "No, but I found something else. The faith to keep looking."

2014 was not the Year of Winning. But as the Year of the Goat kicks off, I will not give up hope that Vietnamese kids can be protected and safe, as all kids deserve to be.