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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Something has to change

Vinh* is 14 years old. He is homeless, sleeping in one of Hanoi's many supposedly-outlawed 24 hour internet cafes. He plays computer games all day, and when he runs out of money he contacts a pimp who calls himself "Aunty" and makes money from trafficking underage boys.

Most of the "buyers" are Vietnamese men, although several foreigners are involved and don't appear to fear getting caught.

Vietnam prides itself on its concern for children and yet seems unable to offer protection to boys like Vinh. Earlier this year he was detained and sent to a Protection Centre, which kept him from danger for some months; but when he was released at the end of July, he was simply shown to the front gate, given a few dollars, and left to find his own way from there. Vinh returned to Hanoi and walked  straight back in the arms of the pimps and traffickers.

While international aid agencies turn away from Vietnam, declaring it a Middle Income country no longer in need of assistance, social problems like this are only just beginning. Vietnam is at a stage of development at which its economic growth has been massively impressive, but the consequences of rapid change are starting to be felt. Blue Dragon staff see the effects on young people daily: and often, what we see is frightening.

Teenage girls have formed gangs that live in hotels, funding elaborate lifestyles by selling methamphethamines. Fifteen and 16 year old boys go out at night breaking into houses, stealing iphones and motorbikes, then celebrate by spending big on prostitutes, online games, and drugs.

And Vinh is not alone in his life of selling sex; he is just one of a network of over 20 boys known to Blue Dragon, all aged under 17, who meet men on Facebook or at one of several known locations to earn $5 - $15 a night.

This isn't acceptable in any society; but the pace of development in Vietnam has been so fast, and often the benefits have been so unequally distributed, that social decay has been unavoidable.

Repairing the damage is going to be incredibly difficult - but not impossible. Vietnam's economic miracle now needs to be matched with a social miracle. Society cannot fail Vinh by leaving him to the predators; something has to change, and it must change soon.

 * Name changed to protect his identity. 

Monday, August 11, 2014


When Blue Dragon was just beginning, our focus was on getting street kids and homeless children into safe homes and schools. And while that's still a large part of what we do, along the way something else has happened: those kids have grown up and many have set their sights on tertiary studies and careers.

This month, 12 Blue Dragon kids are graduating from university and college. Every other day, one of them turns up at Dragon House, an envelope of results in hand, to proudly tell us that they've finished.

To help the kids through their studies, Blue Dragon offers scholarships, which are part loans and part grants. The loans are interest free and repayable over several years; we've tried to find the delicate balance of making the scholarship program sustainable without adding an unbearable burden on the students.

We've only been operating the loan scheme for a couple of years, but already the kids' commitment to repaying their loans is remarkable. Just a few weeks ago, Chinh (pictured below) graduated from her law degree and came to repay her loan immediately, from savings at her part time job. What makes this even more remarkable is that Chinh is blind.

Another recent graduate is Minh, pictured in the black shirt. This photo was taken in 2005 at a Blue Dragon United soccer game; at the time, Minh was one of our youngest (and smallest!) players.

(Click here to learn about Blue Dragon United).

Minh's huge smile belied a very difficult life, but after coming into contact with Blue Dragon through the weekly soccer games, things started to turn around. We gave him and his mother all the help they needed to get Minh through school; and now, 9 years later, Minh has just graduated with a degree in Tourism. He's worked hard to get this far, and with the right support along the way he's achieved some great results. Now he can't wait to find his first job and start leading tours through Vietnam!

In many ways, Chinh and Minh are just regular kids: they're university graduates who have done their best and set their hopes high. Their personal hardships, however, have been much greater than most have to bear, making their success even more inspiring.

Vietnam, and our world, needs more people like them.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

And NOW look what he's made!

Back in 2009, I posted a photo of a boy named Than with his beautiful artwork at a Children's Home in central Vietnam:

(... and the original link is here).

Than is 21 years old now, and he's graduated from decorating the walls of the Home to studying at Art College. Even though he's still a student (one more year to go!), he already has people lining up to buy his work.

It's been a long hard road, and Than has had a lot of help along the way; but he's worked hard and made the very best of every opportunity. Truly an inspiring young man!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

This ain't no Vocational Training program...

This morning, Blue Dragon has rescued 4 children from garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City: 3 boys and 1 girl. All are aged 13 and 14, and all are from rural villages in central Vietnam.

Before the day is out, we hope to find at least one more child whose family has asked us to bring her home.

The pictures below have been caught on a phone-camera; not high quality, but they give you the idea of where these kids have been living and working.


I'm commonly asked how and why parents let their kids go with these traffickers. Are the families profiting from this? Are they lousy parents, selling their children?

In short: No. They're very rarely bad parents. Instead, they're desperate parents with very few resources and low education who are deceived by the false promises the traffickers make. When they realise they've been tricked, they want nothing other than to have their children safely back at home.

The most common lie that the traffickers tell is that they have Vocational Training programs; the kids can go to the big city in the south, learn to be tailors, and make a great income in just a few years! The photos tell a very different story. This is slavery, pure and simple.

A 13 year old girl leaving a factory today 
with Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer

Blue Dragon has been getting kids out of these factories since 2006. They're small, home-based factories scattered all around the industrial suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City. Once the kids are safe, we report to the police and let them decide how to deal with the factories. But we don't want to be doing this work forever; we hope that our constant raids and the attention of Vietnamese media will be enough to get the factory owners to change their minds about using child slaves, and there's already some evidence that the tide is turning. We sure hope so.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

One for the boys

Ninh and Tan* say they are 12 and 13 years old respectively. They look much younger than that, and in reality they probably don't know when they were born.

The boys are neighbours from a Hmong community in northern Vietnam. Five months ago, a trafficker came to their village offering help to impoverished families, and took the boys along with 3 young men with the promise of short term work.

None of the group had been away from their village before, so they had no idea they were being taken to China. Within a week they were enslaved in a shoe-making factory far from home, working impossibly long hours and being fed starvation rations. Their boss was cruel and savage; the workers lived in terrible fear.

Earlier this week, Ninh and Tan had a reprieve from the factory. The boss, a Chinese businessman, took them to the market to help him carry home some supplies. While walking through the streets, the older of the 2 boys spotted a policeman. Taking an incredible risk, they ran away from their boss and clung to the Chinese policeman, who couldn't understand a word they said but recognised the terror in their eyes.

The boys were lucky; their risk paid off. The Chinese police found a translator and learned that the boys had been trafficked. Unfortunately, Ninh and Tan could not recall the location of the factory, so while have now been repatriated to Vietnam, their friends remain enslaved in China.

On Saturday morning the boys reached and Hanoi and spent time at Blue Dragon before our anti-trafficking team started the journey back to their home town. It will be at least 20 hours before they get there; the distance is not so great, but there are few roads between here and there. Ninh and Tan have spoken to their families over the phone and are excited to finally being back with their mums and dads.

Talking to them over lunch, I asked the older boy Tan about the experience of running to the Chinese police. "Weren't you afraid to take such a risk?" I asked.

Tan's answer was bold and forthright. "We were afraid, but we had to do it," he said. "We had to escape no matter what."

Aged just 13, and already deserving of a medal for heroism. His escape could have gone horribly wrong, and he could well have ended up being re-sold to another trafficker, or beaten severely by his boss, or... well, the possibilities are endless.

When we think of human trafficking, we tend to think singularly of girls. The evidence definitely suggests that girls and women are more at risk of being trafficked than males; but the anti-trafficking services for boys and men are a mere fraction of the services for girls and women. The imbalance is too great.

I've been looked in the eye by people who work in anti-trafficking telling me that Blue Dragon simply should not rescue or work with boys who have been trafficked. We should focus exclusively on girls, I have been told.

This issue of boys' needs being overlooked and ignored is not just a pity. It's not just an imbalance. It's a violation of human rights and, in some instances, it borders on criminal negligence.

Boys are being trafficked into violent, dangerous, life-threatening slavery. They are also being trafficked into sexual servitude, although the scale is barely understood or acknowledged.

Here in Hanoi, the Blue Dragon team meets homeless boys every week who have encountered traffickers offering them money in exchange for sex - sometimes here in Hanoi, and sometimes in locations outside the city. We know of a pagoda and a pho shop which are bases for the trafficking of boys. We see the traffickers using Facebook on a routine basis to approach boys, befriend them, and then ensnare them. I'll be writing more about this in coming weeks.

So why are the boys less deserving of services and assistance than girls? Clearly they are not; the need is equal, whether the child is a girl or a boy. But we see girls as 'victims' and so are moved by their plight, while we continue to think that boys should be able to look after themselves. This is why there are people unafraid to elicit the view that boys should not receive help so long as there are girls in need.

To put it bluntly: The anti-trafficking industry needs to re-align its values to get help to those who need it most, and not only those who more easily attract public sympathy and, therefore, funding.

Ninh and Tan are on their way home as I write; by late Sunday they'll be back with their families. They have been through a frightening ordeal but now have a chance to return to a normal life. My hope is that the police now have enough information to round up the traffickers who took these boys, and also to find the other young men who were taken to slavery in China.

Girl or boy, man or woman. Any person trafficked in to slavery deserves a chance to escape and start over.

* Not their real names

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The little red book

We all know what's most important in life: good health, an education, a place to live, and people to care for us.

But there's one thing we often take for granted... Something so basic that we rarely stop to consider it.

A legal identity.

Having an identity is among the most basic rights we have. When we're born, we are registered and receive a birth certificate. That's not a certificate to congratulate us on being born... it's an official acknowledgement of existence.

In the west, we complain about bureaucracy and procedures every time we need a new passport or we change our name and need a new driver's licence. Fair enough. But imagine the hassle of having no legal identity at all.

Not having a legal identity means that all the basics are out of reach: you can't enroll in school, you can't go to hospital, you can't get a job, you can't rent a house, you can't get a driver's licence, you can't apply for state welfare. You can't do any of this because you don't officially exist.

Throughout Vietnam, there are countless families who have never had a legal identity. They tend to live in remote rural areas, although plenty of city dwellers also have no paperwork to their names.

Blue Dragon has an amazing Legal Advocacy Team who travel the country assisting people in all sorts of difficult situations, including children and families who have no legal identity.

One of our strategies is to work in particular regions where the incidence of poverty is extremely high, and register local citizens en masse. This means that not only do the people end up with their legal identities, but the local government has an opportunity to learn to do this work themselves.

Early in June, Blue Dragon's Legal Advocates registered over 400 people in Muong Ang district of Dien Bien province - this is right off the beaten track in north-west Vietnam. All of the people we registered belonged to ethnic minority groups; almost none spoke Vietnamese.

We traveled with local government officials out into the villages, set up in community spaces, and then went about inviting people to come and register.

This may sound like a simple and mundane paperwork exercise, but the personal impact of this is enormous.

Prior to the registration campaign beginning, our lawyer Hong spoke to a group of almost 60 families, to help them understand the importance of registering. One of the mothers approached her and said:

None of the members of my family has personal papers yet, but we don't really care. It's not important, because none of us goes to school or to work, and we never leave our village.

Later in the day, after the meeting and the registration work were all finished, the same mother found her way back to Hong to say:

Thank you so much for organising this. Now I understand why these documents are important to my family. It will make life much easier when my children grow up and go to school or go to work. Now that we have this paper, my elderly mother can receive a monthly allowance from the government. The commune leader even promised to start supporting her from next month!

Those few pieces of paper - the "little red book" with all registration details and personal documents - make a huge difference. Now that we have completed registering citizens in this commune, we are already planning the next campaign, and hope to register at least 400 more people soon.

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Hero

The truth that I have known for many years is now official.

Van Ta, Blue Dragon's own Chief Lawyer, is a Hero - with a capital "H."

On Friday morning in Washington DC, Secretary of State John Kerry awarded Van the prestigious Trafficking In Persons Hero Award from the United States government.

Many people know of Van's work, but few know of Van himself. He spearheads Blue Dragon's anti-trafficking work; he finds and rescues children and young women taken for exploitative labour and sex work against their will; and he defends victims in court, ensuring justice according to the law.

Among all his other work defending victims of  crime and registering citizens who have never been officially registered with the government, Van has rescued 331 children and young women from trafficking. That's 331 people who have been taken from home and held captive; and Van has located them and found a way to set them free. His rescue work sometimes involves raiding the places of slavery, and sometimes involves assisting victims to escape and, without exaggeration, make a run for their lives.

But Van is not a household name, both out of a genuine humility and out of a need for safety. To be blunt, Van's work is dangerous, yet he has never hesitated or put himself first. Nor has he ever sought the spotlight.

I first met him at a party for blind children in September 2003. Van was a bright eyed law student intent on changing the world, and I was in the early days of creating Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. Immediately on meeting me, Van declared that he wanted to volunteer for Blue Dragon, and that he would like to work for us for a couple of years after graduating from law school. It was as though he could foresee both the challenges and the victories that lay ahead.

In the early years, Van's work was largely with homeless children and unregistered citizens. One of his first great successes was reuniting a runaway teenage boy with his mother in the countryside. Van was welcomed as a hero by the entire village; they had feared that the missing teen was dead and would never be heard of again.

That teenage boy went on to complete school, go through tertiary studies, and is now the IT Coordinator at Blue Dragon HQ.

Van's first encounter with human trafficking was a couple of years later, in 2005, when I met a trafficked boy on the streets of Saigon. Van and I worked out a plan to rescue the boy, and in getting him home to central Vietnam we were shocked to learn of the extent of trafficking in the region. So we embarked on a process of finding and rescuing trafficked children, bringing them home from the streets and sweatshops of Saigon, and reuniting them with their families.

As of today, we have rescued a total of 260 girls and boys who have been trafficked for forced labour within Vietnam.

Two years later, Van conducted his first rescue of girls trafficked to China. A teen girl we knew from Hanoi had gone missing, and she made a call for help in July 2007. All we knew was that she was in China; she didn't know which town she was in, or how close it was to Vietnam. But she was desperate for help. Not knowing what else to do, Van headed to China, found her, and rescued her - along with 6 other girls being held in the same brothel. All had been deceived and entrapped; all lived in fear for their lives. Today, thanks to Van, all are free.

But that first rescue trip was exceptionally dangerous. Van was lucky to make it back alive, and for a few hours I had no idea where he was or what had happened. When he finally did re-emerge, we agreed that this China rescue was to be a one-off. No more rescue missions in China!

Well... except that by now he has rescued a total of 71 girls and young women from brothels and forced marriages in China.

This award from the US government is richly deserved. Van and his family have given themselves totally to the service of others; there is not a day that Van does not help another person. The only other person who is anything like Van is his wife, who is also an exceptional legal advocate.

The formality of the ceremony, and the associated visits to the White House and other government institutions, is quite a contrast to the normal pace of Van's life.  Van's rescues and legal work are fast-paced, intense, and relentless. It's unusual for Van to have a few hours of peace; around Blue Dragon HQ we joke about how hard it is to get 5 minutes with him. Secretary Kerry doesn't realise how privileged he is to have Van in one place for a 30 minute ceremony!

I am incredibly proud of Van. This blog isn't a place for formalities, but it must be said: Van, on behalf of all the children, families, and young adults you have rescued from slavery and whose lives you have changed... Congratulations. Stand tall and proud, for you are truly a hero to many.

And most of all, Van, you are a hero to me.