Monday, April 27, 2015

The long haul

Blue Dragon works from a centre in Hanoi, where most of our team is based. A few years ago we also established a centre in central Vietnam to support the several hundred kids and families we help there in the fight against human trafficking.

But our work takes us far and wide throughout the country. Not a day goes by that we're not out on the road, often in isolated and remote areas, reuniting a homeless child with their family or investigating a case of missing children.

Over the past week, we've been working on a case that has been even more extreme than usual. The Rescue Team been travelling through central China, more than 2000km from the border of Vietnam, to find a trafficked 13 year old girl, "Quy". As the case isn't yet over, we can't share too many details, but this has been an urgent and tense case with quite a lot at stake.

Quy is safe now, but of course deeply traumatised by what's happened and desperate to get home. She was evidently taken and sold as a bride, but the information is not yet totally clear and I'm sure we'll know more later in the week. For now, all that matters is that she is on the way back to Vietnam.

The Blue Dragon Rescue Team has been in contact with Quy via text messaging for several weeks, but the case was brought to a head about a week ago and Quy needed to escape her situation. She ended up in a police station, where she has been until today.

It will be a few more days until Quy is back to Vietnam, and some more days still before she sees her family again. Once she's OK, we know of another 13 year old girl trafficked into China who needs our help, so the team may be back on the road even before the week is out.

To some it may seem like a lot of effort to help just one child. Apart from the fact that our rescues also result in trafficking rings being arrested - and thereby prevent future trafficking from taking place - I have to say that travelling a 4000km round trip to save a child's life is a worthy mission in itself. None of us would hesitate if it was our own child.

Rescue work is a long haul, both chronologically and geographically. When the moment comes that Quy is back in the arms of her mother and father, there will be no question that this has been worthwhile.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team meets new homeless children in Hanoi every week, and sometimes every day.

Kids come to the city for a great variety of reasons: neglect and abuse at home... a fight at school... poverty and hunger... or maybe just a search for adventure.

They're drawn to Hanoi in the hope of a better life, but in reality the city is a dangerous place for homeless children. We've now come to the conclusion that every child, boy and girl, who comes to the city as a 'street kid' is either sexually abused or at the very least approached by a pedophile offering money in return for sex.

One day last summer I met two boys, aged 13 and 14, who had come to the city looking for a summer job. They spent only one night on the street but were approached by 6 pedophiles. By the next morning, they were terrified and just wanted to go home.

How has this situation developed in a conservative capital city where tradition and family values reign supreme?

A very large part of the problem is that Vietnamese laws on child protection have been written in such a way that definitions of sexual abuse apply only to girls. In short, boys are not protected from sexual abuse by the law.

Over the past two years, the number of boys we have met on the streets who have been abused by pedophiles has grown, and continued to grow. We've worked closely with police to turn this situation around, but have only seen 2 of these men arrested.

However, there's some good news on the horizon: there is a building momentum to revise the law so that the abuse of both girls and boys is considered a criminal offense.

On Friday last week, Blue Dragon Children's Foundation and the People's Police Academy led a workshop that brought together police, lawmakers, academics, and officials. The single topic of discussion was the need to reform those articles of the criminal code which apply only to females, but should apply equally to males.

Research papers were presented, professional experience discussed, anecdotes shared, and ideas were exchanged.

During a break, one senior policeman approached me to say that we had met before. I couldn't recall how or where, until he told me the story.

Back in 2007, his own nephew had run away from home in the countryside and come to Hanoi. We had met him and taken him in, and as is our usual way of working he stayed in our care some days until he revealed to us where he was from. When we contacted his parents, this policeman came to our centre to pick him up.

The encounter was a poignant reminder that the children in danger of abuse are not only stereotypical street kids from broken families; they are any kids at all, no matter what kind of family or background they are from.

Everybody agrees that the law needs to change. It's now just a matter of when.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Farewell, young Quoc

Today I share the sad news of the passing of a little boy named Quoc.

Quoc was 12 years old and living in rural Bac Ninh province, 2 hours north of Hanoi. He had a difficult life, growing up in poverty with a very ill mother. Quoc appeared to be a normal, healthy child but he had suffered a brain aneurysm in Grade 2 and never fully recovered.

He passed away in a local hospital having had a stroke in his sleep.

Despite his poor health and difficult family circumstances, Quoc did well at school, even receiving certificates of excellence for his studies, and he loved football. He was studying Grade 7 with support from Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, dreaming of a better life ahead.

There is always an inherent sense of unfairness when a child dies, in any circumstance. Knowing of Quoc's hard life and sudden death, it's impossible to not feel sorrow and grief; he had so much ahead, and was determined to make the most of his life.

But equally, Quoc's life was not in vain. He did make the most of his short years, caring for his little brother and his parents, and enjoying every moment. He didn't live with self pity, and he didn't use his difficulties as an excuse for not trying.

So we say farewell to our little brother, and we grieve his passing, but we remember the good he brought to our world and will let our happier memories of his life be his legacy.

Farewell, young Quoc.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Safe / not safe

After 3 weeks on the road in Australia, it's great to be back in Vietnam, back at home, and catching up with everyone and everything.

One of those 'things' that I have been catching up: the last few episodes of The Walking Dead.

For those who don't watch the show (seriously? There are people who don't watch TWD!?), our rugged band of zombie apocalypse survivors has been lurching from disaster to disaster, losing friends and sustaining plenty of damage along the way. But now they have made it to the safest and most peaceful place they have yet been: Alexandria.

They have high walls to keep them safe; electricity; dinner parties; cookies; rocking chairs on porches.

And it's driving them all insane.

Never in all 5 seasons of the show have they been this safe, and yet they are now divided against each other and acting completely irrationally.

Any psychologist would quickly put a label on this: PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I, meantime, am watching this and thinking how much it all reminds me of many kids here at Blue Dragon.

When we first meet children, they are normally in the midst of a crisis. They might be locked into a brothel in China; or caught up in a pedophile ring in Hanoi; or trapped in a sweatshop in Ho Chi Minh City.

They may have been in this situation for weeks, or months, or years. They may have survived by adapting to a violent and hostile environment, or by learning to manipulate people around them as a defence mechanism. They may have become violent themselves.

When they finally can escape their crisis, that doesn't mean everything is fine now. Just because they are in a safe place doesn't automatically mean their problems are over.

At Blue Dragon, we see young people deal with their trauma in many different ways, and we are extremely fortunate to have two outstanding Vietnamese Psychologists working with us. Just recently I wrote about the incredible resilience we see in the young people we encounter; but of course not all of the Blue Dragon kids make quick recoveries.

For the kids we meet who have been through particularly tough times, such as sexual abuse, it's normal to see them struggle for up to a year: they'll stay with Blue Dragon for a while, then regress and go back to the streets before coming in again. Sometimes they repeat this several times before calming down.

Going back to school is particularly hard for many. Sitting in a room with strangers who have never been through the same life experiences; listening to a teacher who knows nothing of the horrors they have faced; learning about subjects that seem so abstract and useless against the recurring nightmares.

Anyone who has suffered through ongoing trauma can have a whole range of symptoms of stress that live on with them long after the crisis is over. A scent or sound can bring back a forgotten moment of terror. An innocent question or comment can result in sudden anger. Often there is no rhyme or reason to the way they will react to their new surrounds.

Healing is a process that needs time, professional help, and care. And then some more time.

Leaving behind the crisis is not the end of trauma. The scars to be dealt with are often invisible, but they are real.

As The Walking Dead reminds us, getting to a safe place is only the start of healing; the journey to real safety goes on much longer.

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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


"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?

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.

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.

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.