I'm back in Hanoi now, and the 11 kids plus 2 staff have just arrived in Hue on the train. On Wednesday morning, their local People's Committees - roughly equivalent to village councils - will have an official 'welcome back' party, and each of the kids' families will receive gifts.
Blue Dragon's 2 staff in Hue will then start their job of finding out more about each of the children and working out what needs to be done to keep them safely at home.
Three of the 11 are from a commune we've never worked in before; rescuing them from the factories was the first step in us ending trafficking in an area called Vinh Hung. With a population of over 7800, government estimates are that there are 50 children working in southern factories at any given time. I'm hoping we can verify that figure - collecting data and gathering accurate statistics are among the myriad challenges we face in this work.
Two other great challenges stand out at the moment.
First, the issue of collecting evidence of conditions in the factories. I have posted some images and video clips in the past to give an indication of what it's like for the kids, but it seems that this latest trip has yielded nothing in the way of 'visual evidence'. There's still a chance there are some photos that haven't been handed over to me yet, but so far what we have is really uninformative.
It's very difficult to capture such evidence. Naturally, the factory owner and his family and colleagues will do everything they can to prevent us from taking video and photos. Sometimes they do this by surrounding the staff, which can be rather intimidating. Unless you have considerable experience, it's not easy to take photos while you are feeling physically threatened.
But the conditions that the kids live and work in are dreadful. Here's a typical example:
The 2 boys pictured below are aged 14 (yellow shirt) and 15 (red shirt). They are among the 11 who have just returned home. The woman beside them is a Blue Dragon staff member; the man in the middle is Mr Sa, an official from Hue; the man in blue is the factory owner; and the man on the end is a Red Cross worker.
For these boys, the working day in the factory started at 6am. They sat on the concrete floor cutting out cloth until 12pm, at which time they had a 2 hour break for lunch and a nap. From 2pm to 6pm - back to work, then an hour for dinner. Finally, they worked from 7pm to midnight.
Sunday was their "day of rest:" they worked as normal, but finished at 6pm instead of midnight.
They were paid, sort of... at Lunar New Year, the factory owner will (or says he will) send money to their parents, as originally agreed. It will come to about $200 in total, if they are lucky.
So they've been working 100 hours per week, and their families will receive the equivalent of less than $20 per month.
You see why I worry about how we can collect better evidence about this?
The second challenge we face is one that starts now: how to best help the kids once they get back to their villages.
All of the 11 are aged 13-15, and each has been out of school for too long. Very few are likely to want to, or be able to, return to school. They each have the idea of "hoc nghe", or vocational training, but none is old enough to study a trade. And who's to say they are suited to vocational training anyway?
Back in their villages, the kids are likely to be bored. If they do return to school, they'll be in classes with much younger students - and not only much younger, but vastly less 'worldly wise.' The kids might have trouble fitting in.
Ideally, I can imagine creating an informal school that might be seen as 'pre-vocational training,' without necessarily leading on to vocational training. But some hands on, child-appropriate learning of a range of disciplines to give the 'returnees' a taste of several different fields of study and employment - IT, mechanics, beauty, hospitality, languages. Sadly, that's just a dream for now.
Without diminishing our joy at having 11 kids out of the factories and back with their families, I acknowledge that there continue to be some grave challenges ahead.
This work really is for the long term, and not something we can finish off neatly with a single trip to the south.