Thursday, September 29, 2011

Heading home

Some quick (and good!) news today... the 23 trafficked kids are heading home.

As I write, they are in Ho Chi Minh City on the way to the airport. Jetstar has donated free flights for them, saving us well over $1000 and a 2 day bus trip. My staff and some police are flying with them. I can only imagine how they'll all be feeling... these kids have never seen an airplane before, let alone flown in one!

In a couple of hours I will meet them at Hanoi's airport and then head back to their villages with them. It's a 12 hour bus ride, but again one of our friends here in Vietnam has offered to help. Peak Adventure Travel is providing the bus for free, once again saving us a small fortune.

The really good news in all of that is we can now use the donations you have sent us for the direct care of the children and their families.

Once the kids are home we will start planning out a map of how to help them for the longer term. We need to address the issues that lead them to being trafficked in the first place.

But that's all for tomorrow. For today - the kids are going home!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Here's an article about Blue Dragon that has recently appeared in Vietnam Discovery magazine. They don't have this online, so I'm posting as images... just click the 2 images to make them bigger!

Preparing for the journey home

A quick update tonight about the 23 (yes it's gone up!) young people Blue Dragon has been helping over the past week.

In the next few days, we need to get them home. They are all still in Ho Chi Minh City, staying in shelters which are looking after them very well... but now the kids just want to get out of there and see their families again. Having worked as slaves in garment factories - some for 7 months, some for 2 years - they can't wait to get out of the city and return to their villages.

The map below gives an indication of what lies ahead. I hope to have some good news very soon about how we're getting the kids home. For now, you'll just have to withstand the incredible suspense!!

View 23 trafficked kids in a larger map

I know that for me and my staff, this rescue operation has been both rewarding (there's NOTHING like seeing the smiles on children's faces when they are told they are free to see their families again), and also very draining at times. There have been setbacks and fears, and just by looking over my posts here and on Facebook you can see how often the information has changed - 32? 19? 22? 23!

And meanwhile, all the rest of Blue Dragon's important work has been continuing at a frantic pace. My writing lately has focused on this case, but plenty has been happening in other areas too. I hope that soon I'll be able to 'fill in some of the gaps' of what else has been going on!

I will be posting again when the kids are headed home - hopefully soon, and hopefully quickly!

Friday, September 23, 2011

22 smiles

What a week of twists and turns this has been!

It's ending well, although with much more yet to happen. So a brief update.

I'm writing tonight from Ho Chi Minh City. It's great to be here, and while I was frustrated earlier in the week at being so far from all the action I can see that the kids we've rescued have been in very good hands.

On Tuesday, Blue Dragon staff worked with various police departments to locate and rescue 15 children from Dien Bien province who were trafficked to work in garment factories. (If you're not familiar with Vietnam's geography, Dien Bien and Ho Chi Minh City are opposite ends of a very long country).

On Thursday, another 3 children were found. These 18 children, along with another 4 who had run away from their factory last Friday, have been through some terrible times but they know that their ordeal is over now.

Of the 22, only one of the kids speaks fluent Vietnamese. Most speak a little, but they are from an ethnic minority which speaks a different language and has its own customs and culture.

Being slaves in garment factories is not a part of that culture.

I am yet to find out very much from the children; this morning I spent some time with them and didn't want to start questioning them, as they've all been giving statements to the police. I figured they'd prefer to have a laugh then retell their stories, and I happen to be outstanding at playing the fool so the kids got a few laughs.

What I did gather, though, was that it's no exaggeration to say that the kids have been held as slaves.

One of the boys, about 15 years old, has been in a factory for 7 months.

Since the day he entered the building, he has not stepped outside. Not even once. His skin is pale from being indoors with little sunlight. For 7 months.

Apart from being a fool, I can also be a real wimp. I had tears in my eyes when he told me this. I'm not sad, though; I'm angry. The people who kept that boy locked away, working for a few dollars per month ("if he completed his work satisfactorily"), deserve all the punishment that's headed their way.

One thing that did stand out to me, though, was that the kids have been trafficked and held captive by just a few people: one trafficker and her 2 adult sons. By contrast, there are now dozens of people working together for their welfare: police, Blue Dragon staff, and even some friends around the world who have sent money for the children.

The kids have had an awful time, but what I saw today was 22 smiling, happy young people who just can't wait to get home to their families.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Safe, but not well

The day has ended very differently to what we planned!

As I wrote on Sunday, Blue Dragon staff headed from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City on Monday night to start looking for 34 trafficked children. These kids, aged 10 to 16, were reported as having been taken from 2 remote rural villages in northern Vietnam to work in garment factories in the south.

Frustratingly for me, I had to stay behind in Hanoi. I'll be heading south on Wednesday afternoon, but it was important that I stay out of the way while the police and Blue Dragon staff carried out the surveillance on factories... And OK, I confess that I do kind of stand out, being a big white Australian bloke and all...

Two things developed, however, quite differently to expectations.

First, we found out that there were not 34 kids, but 19. And 4 of them had already escaped from a factory on Friday, so our job was to find 15.

Although it was definitely good news, I was perplexed to hear this. The very significant difference seems to mostly have come from language barriers: the villagers who reported the trafficking don't speak Vietnamese, and with a very low level of education they appear to have reported to us a list of every child and young adult who has left their villages in recent months. This included men and women in their 20s who had gone to work in the city, but were not necessarily trafficked.

Second, today turned out to be much more than just a search for the kids. As has happened with some previous rescue trips, one thing quickly led to another and soon our staff and the police were raiding 3 garment factories and getting all of the children out - in fact, it happened so quickly that we were all taken by surprise.

It was incredibly frustrating for me to be in the office getting text messages and phone updates throughout the day when I really wanted to be there in the thick of things... I needed to get some exercise this evening just to release the tension and use up the adrenalin that's been flowing all day.

I am hugely relieved, though, to know that the kids are safe. They're together in a shelter being well looked after tonight, but they are not in good health. It's evident that they are malnourished and have been locked up in factories for some months, with no free time or opportunities to get outside into the sunlight.

They are not well, and are going to need some care. But caring for kids is something Blue Dragon happens to specialise in!

I won't have many updates for the next 24-36 hours. The police now need to gather evidence and statements and work out how to proceed from the legal point of view. Vietnam introduced a new law on trafficking back in March, so the authorities haven't had much chance to test how it applies to cases like this.

Because it's now a legal matter, I can't say too much... But it's safe to say that thing aren't looking too good for the traffickers...

Once the police have done their work, we've got to figure out how to get the kids home. It's a long way from Ho Chi Minh City to Dien Bien province, and the kids are in a pretty fragile state.

So now that they're free, we'll just take one thing at a time.

And a quick P.S... We've really appreciated all the kind comments and messages of support that have appeared on our Facebook page today. Thank you! These are noticed and valued!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's on

Friday saw an unexpected development in our search for the 34 trafficked children.

High up in the mountainous village where the kids come from, a parent received a phone call from a child care worker in a province near Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

4 of the 34 had somehow escaped their traffickers and were picked up either by a friendly local or perhaps by a police officer and taken to a shelter. The first thing they wanted to do, naturally, was ring their mothers.

We have no idea yet how they escaped or how they ended up in the shelter. We've held off questioning them over the phone because we don't want to scare them. We are complete strangers, after all.

On Monday night our operation will kick off. Thanks to this escape, we're now in a (presumably) better position to find the remaining 30... assuming that these 4 can lead us back to their trafficker, and that the trafficker is still there.

We're expecting that it will still take some days of work; there is still a lot to do, and we want to be sure that the trafficker is caught and punished. We're still not certain what sort of work the kids are doing.

But we're going ahead. It's on.

THANK YOU to those people who have already sent donations for this. Whether it's $10 or a few hundred, it will help.

We are still in urgent need of more funds to arrange this rescue, and I invite our friends around the world to help out with this. You can donate here or drop me a line if you want to ask more:

I'm excited and nervous about what's to come. Here's to hoping we can get these kids home.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where are our children?

Ngoc was just 13 years old when we rescued him from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Worn to exhaustion, he walked the streets throughout the night, selling roses to drunk partygoers in the city's tourist district. Every dollar he made went straight into the hands of the traffickers, who sat down the road watching the children they had brought in from the countryside.

That was back in 2005. He was the first child we rescued from traffickers. We've rescued 109 now, and Ngoc is a role model of a young man working in a restaurant here in Hanoi.

But the trafficking continues. Since lifting Ngoc out of his slavery, we've rescued girls from brothels and helped scores of kids get out of garment factories. Last year we undertook a rescue operation to find 3 girls who had escaped a brothel in China and were hiding in fear of their lives, over a thousand miles from their homes in a foreign land.

We've had some success so far, as well as some setbacks and disappointments.

Today we're facing a new challenge - something on a scale we haven't dealt with before.

About a week ago, the Vietnamese police contacted us to get involved in a case of children being trafficked from remote villages. When our staff arrived, they found 2 extremely poor communities in the mountains which had been approached by a single trafficker, a woman, offering to give the children a 'better life'.

These villages are remote and very, very poor.

Altogether, she took 35 children, saying they were headed to Ho Chi Minh City for training and jobs. The kids were aged just 10 to 15.

A few weeks ago, one of the children returned to the village: a 15 year old girl. She was pregnant.

The villagers immediately realised that something was wrong and put out a call for help. They are desperate and alarmed, but have no idea where their children really are.

Families coming to register the details of their missing children.

It seems incredible to you and me that anybody could let their children go with a complete stranger. But keep this in mind: in each of the 2 communities, there are just one or two people who are literate. Vietnamese is not the language of these villagers; they belong to a tiny hilltribe group with its own language and customs.

These people know virtually nothing of the world outside of their mountain-top villages.

Now we're in the midst of planning to find the remaining 34 children. We have almost no information to go on, but until now we've been pretty good at tracking down trafficked kids even without any solid leads. I guess I should say we're "cautiously optimistic."

Our main worry is that this trafficker has gone to such unusual lengths to get children for the factories. There are many places in more accessible locations where traffickers can find vulnerable families. Taking the kids from these remote areas was expensive and time consuming... Which makes us think that whatever the motive, there must be considerable profit in the work.

We fear that the children are in serious danger.

Assuming that we can find them, there's a lot involved in the rescue of these children. Their Vietnamese language skills are fairly basic, and they're going to be frightened (and possibly traumatised) - so caring for them in the first days is going to be absolutely critical, and very complex!

And then there's the issue of accommodating 34 children in Ho Chi Minh City for a couple of days, before taking them all home from one end of the country to the other.

These are the sort of things we're thinking about at the moment!

I don't often do this, but I need to ask for donations for this rescue trip. We're estimating that we need about $3400, and so far we have one very generous donation of $400 to kick us off. If you can help, drop me a line - - or head to the Blue Dragon donation page:

It's a lot of money all up, but in fact the cost is just $100 per child, which is pretty small considering the impact this will make on their lives. Every dollar will help!

I do have to emphasise that we're still in the planning stages, so by all means hang on to your money until I am sure we're going ahead. I'll post more in coming days, and you're welcome to email me with your 'pledge' so I can get back to you when we have more information.

There's a lot of uncertainty about this case, but what I do know is this:

34 children are missing, and we've got to find them.

Behind the scenes...

Blue Dragon's newsletter, Dragon Tales, has just been released.

This edition explores our Child Rights work, looking behind the scenes at the team responsible for Blue Dragon's advocacy work and rescue operations.

It's a good read (as always!). If you're not on the mailing list, get in touch - - and we'll email you a copy.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A long search

Something special happened yesterday morning in the northern city of Hai Phong: a 13 year old boy, who has been out of school for years and living on the streets, started his first day of Grade 2.

A hugely important part of Blue Dragon's work in Hanoi is our Outreach service, which involves looking for street kids and offering them help. Just like our work with rescuing trafficked children, our Outreach brings us into contact with young people in utterly desperate situations.

To really be successful, we need to find the kids within a couple of weeks of them arriving in Hanoi. The sooner, the better.

Over the past few months, though, we have been working with a tiny 13 year old, T, who has been on the streets for over a year - and much to our own surprise, we seem to have achieved a pretty good result.

I've written about T several times on Facebook, but it's only now that we have the full story.

T grew up in a very poor family on the outskirts of Hai Phong city; his parents divorced when he was young (which is a big deal here in Vietnam) leaving T and his older sister with their mother.

Although the mother did her best, she couldn't keep on supporting both children, so in 2007 she sent T to live with his father in Hanoi, and she kept on looking after her daughter at home. Because of her financial difficulties, she moved about from rented room to rented room.

Shortly after T arrived in Hanoi, his father remarried, and as often happens in Vietnam, this meant the children from the 'old marriage' were no longer wanted. T was sent to live in a pagoda, where he stayed for over a year.

The pagoda wasn't a great place for him though. After being bullied and neglected, he finally ran away to live on the streets. His father and step-mother had moved away, so he couldn't find them, and he had no idea how to contact his mother.

T survived by collecting scrap on the streets.

Little did he know, but back in Hai Phong things had gone badly for his mother and sister. His mother one day vanished - she left their home in the morning and simply didn't return. T's grandmother, who brought the sister to live in her own home, believes the mother was trafficked. There's no evidence that she deliberately abandoned her child, as she left all her possessions behind. She just disappeared.

By the time Blue Dragon's Outreach workers met T, he had been living rough for over a year. I could write a novel about the troubles he had living on the streets.

We knew it would be difficult to help him: any child who has lived so long on the streets has great difficulty settling back in to a house with rules and expectations. But T did so remarkably quickly. We provided him with a place to live while our staff, including our Child Rights Advocates, started the search for T's family.

This turned out to involve an awful lot of detective work. We thought we were looking for his mother, of course, and we drove T to Hai Phong to look for the last places he knew she lived. That first trip was futile; he couldn't remember where they had been living, and we were to learn later that she was long gone anyway.

After more than a month of enquiries and searching, we located T's grandmother - a breakthrough! Once we were sure it was her, we bundled T into a car and headed off for the reunion.

It was a beautifully touching moment: the tiny kid seeing his sister and grandmother for the first time in years, but also finding out that his mother was missing and nobody had heard from his father.

How can a 13 year old deserve to get news like that? Some things in life just aren't fair.

When it came to to leave, T was worried. Did he really want to live in Hai Phong again? He'd never lived with his grandmother... would they get along? Would she be too strict? And what of all his friends back in Hanoi?

So we made an agreement: we would leave him with his grandmother for 2 weeks, then come back and talk again.

The 2 weeks passed, and grandma rang to say that T wanted to stay with her. She was thrilled, and deeply appreciated an offer of financial support from Blue Dragon to help look after him. Grandma now had 2 grand children to look after, and no income at all - she was really doing it tough!

And then for the final step: Getting T back to school. Apart from the fact that he has only finished Grade 1 and he's now a teenager, the biggest hurdle was that according to Vietnamese law he didn't meet the criteria to study in a regular school. At first the school accepted him, but then realised they really shouldn't... and so early this week we got the call that his application had been rejected.

But, hey, that's why Blue Dragon employs lawyers!

Yesterday morning one of our Child Rights Advocates headed back to Hai Phong to meet with the school and help them see how they could accept him... and so they did. T had his first day in school, and by all reports everything went well.

I am hesitant to say "case closed" - there's a long long road ahead - but for today, I am happy to say that things have turned out about as well as we could have hoped. I wish we could find T's mother, but for now he is with his grandmother and sister, and he's back in school.

At least now he has a chance of a better life.