Every morning, millions of people in our world wake up far from home in slavery. Children in factories and on farms. Infants forced to beg and steal, or sell on the streets. Girls and women in brothels.
We know that their lives are terrible - but there is something about trafficking that makes this crime different to most others. Human trafficking involves a very particular betrayal of trust and humanity.
Last week Blue Dragon set out on a rescue trip to China. We were looking for a 17 year old girl named "Hanh" (not her real name) who was tricked and kidnapped from northern Vietnam in January this year.
Sold into a brothel, Hanh was forcibly raped day after day for 6 months. The brothel was located underground: from the street, customers walked down a flight of stairs into a windowless basement that housed a dozen or so rooms for Chinese and Vietnamese sex workers.
Hanh made friends with a Chinese sex worker who was free to come and go, and earned her trust to borrow a mobile telephone. The sex worker, in her 20s, knew that she could be in terrible trouble for allowing Hanh to use her phone, but caved in to Hanh's pleas and gave her the phone for just 2 days.
Those 2 days were all we had to find and rescue Hanh.
We flew in to the nearest big city and then drove overland to the town where we believed Hanh was being held. Our only information was that the street frontage was red, and the brothel was below street level. That wasn't much to go on, but a rapid search through the main streets lead us to the right location in just one day.
Finding the brothel turned out to be the easy part. We've never engineered an escape from an underground site before, and security here was the highest that we've ever seen. Hanh revealed over the phone that there was another Vietnamese girl there, "Thi," who also had been kidnapped; she was just 16. Neither of the girls was ever allowed outside without a security guard.
"Hanh" and "Thi" in China
In a case such as this, calling the local police seems like a good option. However, we had to rule it out entirely. Hanh had been rescued by police once already. They raided the brothel and took her back to the Vietnamese border and released her - but her traffickers knew she was coming. Freedom was only an illusion. She was grabbed immediately, taken straight back to the brothel and forced right back to work.
We were going to have to do it ourselves.
Next door to the brothel was a hair salon. Hanh and her friend asked permission to get their hair done - which was a fairly normal thing to do. The security guard stood inside the doorway of the brothel while they stepped next door, as they had done many times before.
This time, though, there was one major difference. We had a car parked across the street with the motor running. As the guard stood dumbly in the doorway, the girls dashed across the street and jumped into the escape car. We were racing down the street before the doors were even closed.
It was all over in about 5 seconds.
The car headed straight back towards Vietnam, which was over 450km away. To be doubly sure of safety, we switched cars twice along the way. The girls hid in the backseat, half thrilled and half terrified.
Even a change of car wasn't enough. Long before we got near the border, a Chinese patrol pulled our car over - apparently at random, but the coincidence seemed too great. For a little while, the whole rescue was in jeopardy. Thankfully we have some friends in the Chinese police, and a few phone calls were enough to have us on our way again after 40 minutes.
Back at the China-Vietnam border, the police on both sides were helpful and supportive. They expedited the border crossing so that the girls could cross over the next morning. A lot of paperwork is involved in getting a victim of trafficking back across the border, so the Blue Dragon staff worked through the night to complete the procedures.
Waiting for the paperwork to be finished...
The next morning was not uneventful, but it was certainly a success. As planned, the "Handover" ceremony took place between the Chinese and Vietnamese police. Hanh and Thi were officially returned to Vietnam.
The Handover Ceremony on the Chinese - Vietnamese border
But something else happened as well. Two of her traffickers were caught right there at the border.
This case had originally come to our attention because the Vietnamese police had caught the traffickers, but without a statement from Hanh they couldn't make the charges stick. And even though we were swift in finding her and getting her back to the border, the police had no choice but to release the suspects - according to the law, they can only keep them for 3 days without a formal charge. However, the police were sure that they would soon have Hanh's statements and so followed the 2 suspects right up to the border. They were trying to disappear into China before Hanh could get home and identify them.
Two traffickers, caught at the border
So - a happy ending? In a way, everything has turned out well. Five of the 7 known traffickers are now in custody. Arrest warrants are out for the others, but they've probably made it to China by now and are unlikely to ever return. Hanh and Thi are both home with their families. Earlier this week, Hanh and her parents travelled to Hanoi to thank Blue Dragon for bringing their daughter home; they've had 6 months of terror and they almost can't believe their family is back together again. Hanh wants to go back to school and continue her studies. She was in Grade 11 when she was trafficked.
However, there's more to the story and some more nightmares for Hanh to deal with. Her earlier "rescue" by Chinese police had ended badly; but the story of how she originally was trafficked is even worse.
Often we think of traffickers as evil men in dark suits, violently grabbing girls and stuffing them in to cars. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Hanh's trafficking started with another girl. One of her classmates. On Hanh's birthday back in January, this "friend" invited Hanh to go visit her boyfriend, and as a group they then headed towards the nearest big town for some fun and shopping. It all seemed completely innocent, but the friend and her boyfriend had already lined up someone to buy Hanh from them. All they had to do was hand her over; and Hanh went completely willingly, not even suspecting that a girl from her class at school could be involved in an international plot to kidnap and sell her.
And it gets even weirder.
While Hanh was enslaved in China, her family received a phone call. The traffickers offered to bring Hanh home - for $5000. Of course, it's almost certain that they would have taken the money but never returned Hanh, as she would have been able to identify the traffickers immediately. But we also know that within an hour of Blue Dragon rescuing Hanh from the brothel, someone was on the phone to her parents claiming to have her and offering to return her for $1500. These guys are networked and well organised.
While the danger of anything happening to Hanh now is extremely low, she has to go on living with the knowledge that all of these terrible events were started at the hands of a classmate. People who know her have abused and exploited her in the worst possible way.
The horrors of enslavement and rape are over, after 6 terrifying months. But how can a 17 year old girl cope with such betrayal at the hands of people she knew and trusted?