Sunday, December 21, 2014

A mother's love

Nga was glad to start life over. Her husband had been a violent alcoholic, and she knew that leaving him behind and taking their young children away to live with her mother was the only way to keep them safe.

Being a single mother in rural Vietnam is never easy: there are always suspicious eyes and gossiping tongues, but Nga was determined to ignore them all. With help from her mother, she set up a tea stall and began to make some money - not very much, but the work kept her busy and she made just enough to keep the children in school. Nga started to feel that maybe things were going to be OK.

And then something wonderful happened: she made a friend! Another woman in the town, Giang, started frequenting her tea stall, showing simple kindness from day to day and making Nga confident in herself. Giang would even look after her children when Nga was busy.

Some months later, when Giang invited Nga to travel with her to the border of China on business, Nga had no reason to be concerned. Giang's sister offered to look after Nga's children for the day, and Giang was able to pay a little in return for Nga helping carrying some goods home. It was all very straightforward and natural.

What happened, though, was anything but what Nga expected. The 2 women traveled into the hills bordering China, where 2 men met them - evidently they were friends of Giang. Still everything seemed fine, but when Nga began to feel uncomfortable and request that they start heading back to the Vietnamese side of the border, her worst nightmare came true. Giang had sold her for $2000 to these men, and there was no chance now that she could go home. Giang turned back to Vietnam, and Nga was alone with these strangers in a terrifying situation.

Nga put up a fight: she had children to get back to. She could not be taken so easily! Even in this sudden surge of fear, her first thought was for her sons.

The men dragged her to a stream and told her that she had three choices. They could drown her, here and now, and leave her body in the stream. Or she could go to work in a brothel to pay off the debt. Or she could be sold as a wife to a Chinese man.

Nga continued to fight: she chose none. She only wanted to get home to her children.

Realising they were in for a battle, the men took Nga deeper into China and locked her into a home. For two weeks, they tortured and terrified her. So far Nga has still not disclosed all that happened in that house during this time; but for all the men put her through, she continued to resist.

Finally the men realised how to make this incredibly strong woman bend to her will: they threatened her children.

Nga's youngest child was still in the care of Giang, back in Vietnam. Giang had kept the little boy, telling Nga's mother that Nga was off on business and would be back soon.

After 2 weeks of torture, the men called Giang and put Nga's son on the phone.They told her plainly: make your choice, or your son dies.

Nga agreed to be sold as a bride.

The men took Nga in a car, traveling over 2000km, until they reached their destination and sold Nga for $12,000 to a Chinese man who believed he was paying a dowry to a Vietnamese woman who wanted to move to China. For a few weeks, Nga complied with everything expected of her - but secretly planned and plotted her escape.

Her chance came when she met a Chinese woman who spoke some Vietnamese. Nga befriended the woman, and finally borrowed her phone to make a call home.

Once Nga had made that call, word reached us at Blue Dragon and within 2 weeks we put in place a rescue operation. Nga is home now, and the 5 key people involved in this trafficking ring are all in custody.

Most of the people we rescue are children and teens; we have rarely been involved in the rescue of a parent. However, Nga's traffickers were also trading in young people; and regardless of her age, Nga was in a desperate situation and needed help.

I am convinced that these rescues are worthwhile: they are difficult and dangerous, but the impact is enormous. First, a single life is changed beyond any words can express. If not for the Blue Dragon rescue team, Nga would still be a servant bride in China, and her children and her mother would have no idea where she was or why she failed to come home.

And second, it is not only Nga who has been rescued. With the entire trafficking ring disabled, nobody can estimate how many women and girls are now safe who otherwise would have fallen victim to their tricks.

What worries, me, though, is that these traffickers are well financed and highly motivated. Nga was sold for $2,000 and then, following 2 weeks of torture, the ring that bought her made a 500% profit.

Putting these guys out of business will never be easy. In this case, it was a mother's love that saved the day. Nga's determination to get home and protect her children was more powerful than the violence used against her; and no amount of money was going to stand in her way.

Because of that love, Nga's story can have a happy ending. I think her kids must be the luckiest children in the world, to have a mother who loves them so fiercely.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Enslaved in a gold mine



The Blue Dragon Rescue team has had an extraordinary day.

For 2 months, we have been hearing rumours of ethnic minority children being trafficked to an illegal gold mine in a mountainous part of Vietnam. The police have been investigating, but information has been slow to come: the stories we heard were of a camp remote and inaccessible, and with young people being held as slaves in the most horrendous conditions, but nobody knew the exact location.

On Friday afternoon, Vietnamese police and the Blue Dragon team found the site after a day of trekking through untouched wilderness. The camp was well hidden, at first appearing to be very small:


But from closer, it was clearly a large base and a well organised operation:



The raid on the mine has resulted in 7 young people being set free after 8 months of enslavement: 3 young women and 4 young men, all aged from about 20 years. Those 7 are now safely back in a nearby town, recovering from their ordeal and giving statements to police. In coming days they will start their long journeys home, and all will need extensive medical tests and health support to get them back in shape.

We believe we've found just the tip of the iceberg, and because of that we can't say much on the blog just now. There are many more young people yet to be found in other illegal gold mines, and we hope that some digging of our own will soon find result in more people being set free from similar camps.

Friday, November 07, 2014

At the other end of the week

Monday was a day of great hope coupled with great uncertainty. I wrote on Monday evening about the challenges being faced by 3 kids here at Blue Dragon:

- a 13 year old girl, "Huong," who has been rescued from a forced marriage in China but whose mother might have been involved in her trafficking;

- a 14 year old boy, "Hai," struggling to break free from the psychological chains keeping him involved in selling sex on the streets of Hanoi;

- and a 16 year old boy, "Tong," who has made a huge effort in recent months to leave the street life behind, and now faces the new challenge of starting in a work experience placement.

So how has the week unfolded?

None of these stories have finished. None will be finished for a long time yet. But the week is finishing with more reason for hope than we started with.

- Huong and her mother have been reunited; a beautifully emotional meeting, free from fear and guilt. It does seem that Huong's mother had some knowledge of her daughter's trafficking, but her lack of education (she's illiterate) and evidence of duress indicate that she was a victim of deception; it now looks like she had no idea what was actually happening with her daughter other than that she was going to work for someone. Today, there is hope that mother and daughter really can be together again.

- Hai spent the week going back and forth; he is a tormented and confused boy, who wants to escape but doesn't know how. At times throughout the week, it seemed that there was nothing we could do to help him. His decision was made. He stopped communicating. Finally, when I feared there was no possibility of turning this situation around, Hai turned up at a Blue Dragon safe house... and had the first proper meal and sleep he's had in months. Maybe, maybe, he'll be back for a second night.

- Tong's work placement has had a rocky start, but through no fault of his own. He fell ill early in the week, and did make a start in the restaurant but had to take some time off. The good news is that he's eager to get back as soon as possible.

No conclusions here. No neat endings. Tomorrow will be another day for success and for failure. But today the sun sets with renewed hope for these 3 kids, whose struggle for life might never be noticed on a world stage, but who deserve a world of love and support.

Tomorrow, the story continues.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Close of business

It's the end of a long day at Blue Dragon in Hanoi.

Meeting homeless kids every day, hearing stories of exploitation and abuse, we leave ourselves open to some pretty raw emotions. When we walk out the front gate at day's end, we carry with us all that we've seen: the tears of a mother desperate to find her missing daughter; the confusion of a teenage boy struggling to find his place in the world. We're just ordinary people, not automatons who can switch off at the close of business. 

And some days, as the U2 song reminds us, are better than others.

Today has been a tough one. Of all the hundreds of kids in our care at the moment, the day is marked by 3 particular stories that are yet to reach their conclusions.

"Huong" is just 13 years old, but already has been sold as a bride to a Chinese man. Blue Dragon has been working on this case for a couple of months; both the Chinese and Vietnamese police have been very active in finding her, and finally late last week Huong was delivered safely back to Vietnamese authorities, accompanied across the border by Blue Dragon's own Child Rights Advocate, Mr Van.

Huong is buzzing with excitement. What could be more joyous than being set free from a forced marriage, and being taken by the hand to begin the journey home? We've been present at hundreds of beautiful family reunions, but I fear that this one might not be so beautiful.

There's something that Huong doesn't yet know: her own mother is suspected as the trafficker.

People commonly assume that trafficked children in Vietnam are all sold by their parents. That's simply untrue. We've rescued over 350 trafficked kids, and there's only been one other occasion in which the parent was complicit - but that was a case of labour trafficking, and the parent recanted within the same day.

If this is true, that the mother sold her daughter to a 'marriage broker,' then it will be the first time we've seen it. And it will be unspeakably devastating for this 13 year old girl.

Back in Hanoi, the sex trafficking of underage boys continues to spiral out of control. Boys as young as 13, who end up on the streets because of family breakdown or even small conflicts at home or at school, are routinely targeted by pimps and taken to pedophiles offering care to hungry children, but delivering only abuse.

One of the boys caught up on this trap, "Hai," turned 14 just a week ago. He's been going with these men every night for the past few months; the only break he had was the month that he was detained in a Social Protection Centre. He certainly needs protection, but at the end of his time there they simply took him to the front door, gave him $5, and sent him on his way.

Hai is torn. He hates going with the men. He hates the men. He hates the way he feels about himself. And yet: he believes that he has nothing to lose by going with them. He meets them in parks, or through online chat rooms, makes the money he needs for a day of playing computer games, and the cycle repeats.

But today he says he wants to change. Hai tells me that he wants a future, and knows he needs to escape this life on the streets. He even opens up with information about the men he's recently been with.

At the end of a painful, painful conversation Hai says that he will have a final decision soon. He asks for money to eat and play games, so that tonight he doesn't have to go 'to work.' I give him the money, not knowing if anything he says is sincere. Is it all just a ploy? Is he playing me, the way he plays the men in the parks? I have no idea, but I have to take the risk that maybe he's telling the truth, and maybe tomorrow he really will turn his back on that life.

Another of the Blue Dragon boys, “Tong,” has already walked the path that Hai is on, and has made the decision to leave behind the life of ‘sex work’ on the streets. Not yet 16 years old, he has seen it all: he’s been passed around from family to family; adopted and then returned; he’s lived in a barn when his relatives exiled him from the house after his mother’s death; and he’s survived the streets of Hanoi by selling his body by the hour. 

In recent months, Tong has undergone a transformation. He left the gang that he had been following and moved into a Blue Dragon safe house. He studied a basic hospitality course and started playing musical instruments, which he apparently learned at some time in his very complex past. His progress hasn’t always been steady, but he’s still with us and doing his best. 

And now the latest step: Tong has been offered a work experience placement in a well regarded local restaurant. It’s only part time, and there’s no salary, but for Tong this is something incredible. 

Staff have taken him out to buy a bicycle, which he’ll need to get to work. He’s been fitted out with some new clothes, and even bought his first pair of shoes. To top it off, I bought him a cheap mobile phone so he can stay in touch with us and the restaurant manager. 

“Over the moon” is a complete cliché, but totally appropriate to Tong’s mood. He’s bouncing through Dragon House, bubbling with a happiness we’ve never seen in him before. It would be easy to think that this is because of the shiny new ‘things’ he now owns: clothes, a cool bicycle, a mobile phone. 

But at the heart of it, that’s not why he is so excited. The happiness stems from being someone: someone who can own a bicycle, ride it to work in his new clothes, and ring his friends to meet up when he’s finished. Those aren’t things that ‘street kids’ do. Those are things that ‘real people’ do. Tong is ‘somebody’ now. 

Of course, he hasn’t had his first day at work yet. He’s yet to experience the drag of going to work when all your friends are going out to play. Or the shock of having a customer grumble and complain when you get the order wrong. Or the disappointment of having a workmate who wants to slack off and get the new guy to do all the work.

For the moment, all Tong can think about is how great everything is going to be. 

The days ahead hold great uncertainty for Huong, Hai and Tong.

Was Huong's mother really involved in the trafficking of her own daughter? Does Huong already suspect this, or is she innocent to this dreadful possibility? If it's true: what will become of her?

Will Hai leave behind the streets, and the cycle of abuse that has ensnared him? Or is he just playing me along, trying to make some easy money to tide him over until his next encounter at the park? 

And how will Tong cope  with the pressure of living this new, 'ordinary' life? Before coming to Blue Dragon, he'd never been close to anyone who held down a steady, salaried job. Can he cope? If he fails, will that failure devastate his newfound confidence?

I wish I had all the answers to the problems I see every day; but sometimes I just don't. All I know is that, as today draws to a close, there is still hope for Huong, Hai and Tong. Whatever joys and terrors tomorrow may bring, those are still in the tomorrow. 

Right now, we have to believe that things can still work out ok.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A rapidly growing mess

I was riding a bicycle across Hanoi's famous Long Bien bridge when the boy, "Hieu," appeared from underneath the railway lines.

Long Bien is a city icon, and serves as the rail bridge across the Red River. It's also home to countless homeless children - and adults, too - who find hiding spots in the most dangerous places to keep away from unwanted guests.

I had known Hieu for some time; he'd been at Blue Dragon previously, but then been sent to Reform School and had only recently returned to the city. He was now 14 years old and, reformed or not, he was homeless.

We joined a group of kids who were playing games on the island in the middle of the river. For a couple of hours Hieu played and laughed like any normal boy; he looked tired, but enjoyed the chance to be with friends.

During a break, I quizzed him on how he was doing and how he had survived the past few weeks. Hieu looked a little uncomfortable and said that someone had been helping him. I could see that something was wrong, so I asked the simple question: "Who has been helping you?"

His answer chilled me: "Olivier."

Olivier is the name of a French doctor who is now back in France awaiting trial for sex crimes against children in Vietnam. At the time I spoke with Hieu, he was living and working in Hanoi, and his name had come up in countless disclosures from street children.

Knowing that Hieu was in contact with this man left me feeling physically ill. I quietly vowed to myself that I would do whatever I could to ensure Hieu was safe.

It's now more than a year since Olivier was arrested, and since then just one other man has been arrested for the same crime: a Vietnamese con artist who traveled the northern provinces with a group of underage boys.

Since 2012, Blue Dragon has worked directly with over 60 boys aged under 16 who have been sexually abused. Almost all are boys who came to the city due to problems at home, and found themselves either tricked or coerced into going back to a stranger's house, or to a hotel, for sex. While several of these men are foreigners, by far the majority are Vietnamese.

Over 60 boys have disclosed this information to us; and only 2 men have been arrested.

The city now has a network of pimps, and established meeting places where men target boys who are clearly homeless. Facebook is a much-used tool for men to communicate with their victims, or to send instructions to the pimps. Some of the men involved are powerful people, flaunting their wealth and connections to the children; while others work on the streets themselves.

Hanoi is a dangerous place to be a homeless child. The city has to face up to this insidious problem, or else face a future of being known as a sleazy child-sex destination.

Hieu is safe now; he's been off the streets ever since that day on the bridge. He goes to school, lives in a stable home, and has big plans for a career in hospitality. And yet, not a week goes by that Blue Dragon does not meet at least one more boy caught up in the vicious cycle of sexual abuse.

While we've done all we can so far to keep Hieu and children like him safe, there will be more children tomorrow who are in danger unless someone intervenes in this rapidly growing mess.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hold my hand

This photo was taken in China on Friday by a member of the Blue Dragon Rescue team. 


The girls are Vietnamese teens who were trafficked at different times and by different gangs for sale to the Chinese sex trade. One girl, aged 16, was sold to a brothel. The other, aged 15, was sold as a bride.

Last week, Blue Dragon worked with Chinese police to first rescue the younger girl, get her to safety near the Vietnamese border, then return inland to rescue the girl in the brothel. On Friday, we were back at the border with both girls, helping them to make their formal statements and prepare to cross back into Vietnam and begin the journey home. 

They met on Friday for the first time.

This brings to 352 the number of kids we have rescued from trafficking. Boys and girls, as young as 11, trafficked and sold to work on the street, to slave away in garment factories, to be repeatedly raped daily in Chinese brothels, or to be forced into marriages with complete strangers.

352 is a decent number. But data can easily hide us from the reality of trafficking, which is deeply personal.

It's personal because the impact on a victim's life is something only they can know, and which will live with them forever. No matter how much they say, nobody else can know what it was like to be deceived and sold like a farm animal for another person's profit or pleasure. Most traffickers are known to their victims; they are friends or relatives or associates. They use trust as a weapon, and in so doing destroy their victims' belief in other people. Data deflects us from the intensely personal nature of this crime. Human trafficking, for whatever purpose, is a crime against humanity.

But for all of the agony that these teen girls have suffered, this photo gives us a reason to smile.

Having barely met each other, but being connected by a shared pain and also a shared story of being rescued and set free, the girls are on their way to make a formal police statement. And what are they doing? Hold hands and smiling.

What they have experienced has been horrific beyond imagination, but they are not alone. They have each other, and they have a hope that they will soon go home to see their family and friends, and all the people who love them.

Over recent months, human contact has been brutal and forced. By lightly and naturally reaching out for each other, and holding hands like kids do, these girls have won a victory over their traffickers and all who would do them harm. They may have been beaten, but they are not defeated.

Good on you, girls.Your pain may be deeply personal, but you are not alone, and great hope lies ahead.

Friday, October 03, 2014

The vomit number

When Blue Dragon's rescue team receives a call for help, we start an investigation immediately.

Investigations sometimes take just a matter of hours or days. And sometimes, they take months.

On Thursday, one of our longest running investigations came to an end, when we located 14 children enslaved in 2 garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City.

Among them, there were 8 girls and 6 boys, the youngest just 12. All were from ethnic minority communities in Dien Bien province, a remote area in the country's north-west.

They had been locked away for between 8 months and 2 years. During this time, they had no contact with their families, who thought their children were going somewhere not too far from home for vocational training.

In both factories, conditions were severe: the children were working for up to 18 hours per day under threat of violence. In one factory, a system of surveillance cameras throughout the building added to the children's fear. 


Children from Dien Bien province are being targeted by human traffickers because they are an impoverished and vulnerable population. Their parents, who commonly speak very little Vietnamese, are easy to deceive with promises of a better life for their families. They don't know that their children will be taken 1,200km away and put to work through the day and night as slave labour.



Blue Dragon has been working with the Vietnamese police to find these kids, and the joint raid on the factories was a brilliant example of what can be done to fight this insidious crime.

The problem of child trafficking sometimes seems overwhelming: but hard work and dedication really can result in children being rescued and traffickers being caught.

Since we started this work in 2005, we've rescued 350 girls, boys, and young women, from factories and brothels. All of our rescues are in response to specific calls for help. And every rescue has played out very differently.

Despite working on this case for over 2 months, we feared that we would not find all of the children. On Thursday morning, we had located one of the 2 factories, and so were ready to free half of the children we were searching for. But we couldn't find the second factory; and as soon as we raided one, we knew that the word would get out and other traffickers would scramble to hide their children. We had to find and raid both factories at pretty much the same time, or risk never finding the other kids.

While the police conducted their own search, one of the Blue Dragon team (I'll call him "Lim") took to the streets to look around himself. As the afternoon wore on, he was becoming increasingly agitated:

What if we couldn't find all of the children? How could we take only half home? What would we say to the parents of the missing children? 

Finally, overcome with stress, Lim found himself vomiting by the side of the road. It was all just too much.

But as he picked himself up, something strange caught his eye: a phone number scrawled onto a wall.

In Vietnam, it's common to see phone numbers on walls - contractors advertise their services this way - but this phone number was not like those. It was handwritten; and its prefix was for Dien Bien province.



Still feeling sick, Lim took out his phone and rang the number. Somebody at the other end picked up the phone and said: "Hello, this is Dien Bien police..."

We still have no idea who wrote that number, or why. We can only presume that an escapee from a factory in the area at some time needed to remember the number, or maybe put it there for others to find. We simply don't know. But finding that number told Lim that we were close. He was in the right area. He called the police to come immediately; within half an hour they had located the second factory.

All 14 children could now be rescued.

Today, the factory owners are in custody and the traffickers are being sought. And most importantly: the 14 children have just had the best night's sleep of their lives, and are thinking only of their desire to get home to their families.

Once they have made their statements to the police, the children will commence their long journey home with Blue Dragon staff by their side. We'll meet their families and find out how we can help to ensure their villages are no longer targets for the traffickers.

I'm sure that much work lies ahead - and that it will all be worth it, to give these 14 children their new chance at childhood.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Bao and the DJ

A few months ago, I had never heard the name 'Hardwell.'

I had no idea that he was the world's Number 1 DJ, and I hadn't even heard of electro house music.

And yet, on Sunday last week, I joined a crowd of 13,000 - mostly young Vietnamese - to pack out a stadium in Saigon and 'make some noise' under the spell of Hardwell.

It was an amazing show; absolutely full on with lights and video stunning the crowd. But to be honest, I wasn't there for either the music or the show.

I was there with a 16 year old Blue Dragon boy, Bao, who sees Hardwell as his idol.

Bao has had a tough life. He doesn't talk about it much at all, but life has not been easy. He's moved from home to home, he's quit school, he's faced a lot of struggles.

And yet Bao has kept right away from trouble. Most teens in Hanoi in his position would have quickly fallen in with the wrong crowd, joined a gang, and taken to motorbike racing at night. But not Bao. He made a personal commitment to me about 3 years ago that he would stay out of trouble, and he has.

Instead, he's taken to music as his way of expressing himself. A brilliant DJ named Luke spent time with Bao, teaching him all the basics and letting him find his own 'musical voice.' Despite being only 16, Bao is now an accomplished DJ with a mastery of all the technical skills that any DJ has.

When Hardwell was announced as coming to Vietnam to play a huge gig, Bao straight away knew that he wanted to go... but being at the other end of the country, that seemed unlikely. However, Luke knew the organisers of the concert, and they invited Bao to not only attend, but to meet Hardwell in person!

So Bao and I spent the weekend in Saigon. We even had the unexpected treat of being invited to stay at the Caravelle Hotel, one of the best hotels in the city! Unbelievable!

The big moment came when Bao and I were accompanied backstage to Hardwell's room. Bao's heart was just about beating out of his chest - this was his dream come true!



And Hardwell didn't disappoint. He was incredibly kind, taking time to chat with Bao and find out about his life. It all went by too quickly, though, and soon we were back out in the crowd.



But those moments will live with Bao for a very long time. He has a new confidence and inner strength now: he has looked his idol in the eye, shaken hands, and exchanged smiles. Nothing's impossible now.

Electro house DJ parties may not be quite my thing, but I was more than happy to spend a night being overwhelmed by noise and flashing lights for the joy of seeing Bao at the top of the world.

Often my blog is a place for me to share the stories of hardships and sorrow. But today, Bao's story is one of great happiness and hope. Through the tough teenage years he's kept on track and worked toward a goal; now he's inspired to dream big and maybe, just maybe, become a famous DJ himself.

And it makes me think: If Bao, with all his troubles, can reach for the stars, then what excuse do I have? 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Test Case

The sex trafficking and sexual assault of boys in Vietnam are issues that have been snowballing over the past 2 years. Blue Dragon has been coming across new cases every week; some weeks, we meet 3 or 4 boys who have been abused. Their stories are painful and heartbreaking, without exception.

This week, a story in the local media has garnered significant attention: a 14 year old deaf and intellectually impaired boy in Nghe An province (north-central Vietnam) was tortured and brutally raped by a neighbour. Identified only as "T," the boy is in a state of shock and pain; doctors and police alike have been unable to understand what has happened and their own limited experience of such cases means they don't know where to start.

The accused rapist is on the run, and T is in hospital being treated.  His parents are desperately poor and aren't even sure how they will pay the hospital bill. The Vietnamese media, not being very sensitive to privacy concerns, have published multiple stories featuring photos of the boy and his bloody injuries. (In case you want to know more about the story, the article with the least-intrusive image is here. It's in Vietnamese, but online translations can give you the general idea).

In short: T is in a desperate situation and his family is deeply distraught.  Their world has come crashing down around them.

Seeing how difficult this case is, and having experience of working with abused boys, Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer, Mr Van, has today traveled to Nghe An to meet the family and talk with the police and doctors about the case. This afternoon, we have agreed to represent T in court, once the rapist is caught, and we are working with the police to lay a charge of sexual assault, even though the law is unclear on this point. (Vietnamese law doesn't clearly recognise that males can be the victims of sexual assault; so in this case the offender can be charged with assault, but not rape).

While our hope is to have the rapist charged as such - and not only for the violent physical assault he committed - we also need to get this family some material support. Their situation is dire.

By getting involved like this, we're taking a step into the unknown. We can't even be sure the accused offender will be caught, but we have to give it our best. T and his family need, and deserve, a helping hand.

It's equally important that the police in this case can see the bigger picture here: any person who rapes a child cannot be allowed to get away with it, whether the victim is a boy or a girl. 

In some ways, this is a test case to make sure an abused boy can be afforded full legal protection. But it's also a real case about a kid who has had his life messed up and is in desperate need.

And so I'm taking the unusual step in my blog of asking for help. We're estimating that about $3000US will be needed for immediate medical help, for the costs of legal representation, and for some decent medium-term support for T once he gets through this ordeal.

If this is something you can help with, head over to the Blue Dragon website and make a donation - any amount will make a difference.

If you're using PayPal, choose "Justice for 'T' Campaign" in the drop down list. If you're donating by bank transfer or through AFAP (for Australians who would like tax deductibility), please send an email to chi@bdcf.org so that our staff member, Ms Chi, knows your donation is for T.


I'll post updates in coming days and weeks about how T is faring, and how the legal case progresses. There are just too many injustices in our world. This is one that I hope we can do something about.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fairytale ending

Could it be true?

Could we really have such a fairytale ending?

In late 2005, Blue Dragon met a 13 year old boy selling flowers on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. That boy, Ngoc, had been trafficked by gang of women who forced him to work through the night, taking everything he earned and beating him if he failed to sell enough.

Ngoc was the first victim of trafficking we had ever met, and so became the first trafficking victim we rescued.

As we investigated how Ngoc had been trafficked, we discovered an extensive problem of child trafficking for labour throughout the province of Hue in central Vietnam. Several months later, we set out on our first "rescue mission" to bring home a group of children trafficked by that same gang.

Among the group was one young girl named Bich Ngoc - the first girl we rescued from trafficking.

Yesterday, with a day of noisy parties in a village in central Vietnam, Ngoc and Bich Ngoc became husband and wife. The first boy we ever rescued from trafficking and the first girl we ever rescued from trafficking are now a family.


Both Ngoc and Bich Ngoc work in a restaurant in Hanoi; they are a fine young couple, supporting their families back home in the countryside, as is the culture, while also saving for their future lives together.

If ever we need evidence that rescuing trafficked children has a long term impact, surely this is it. Even I would never have dreamt of such a happy ending.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The danger in staying safe

In recent months I have been writing about the incredible dangers that Hanoi's street kids face: in particular, the danger of being trafficked and sexually exploited.

So far this week, Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team has met 3 new homeless boys. Two have already been sexually abused, and are now in our care.

The third has managed to avoid the traffickers and pedophiles by living on a bridge, in a hiding spot so dangerous that even our Outreach staff were afraid when they went to see... And given the dangers that our Outreach staff routinely face, that really says something.

Below are some pictures to tell the story better than words can.

This first photo is a view over the side of the bridge, looking down at the entrance to the hiding spot, about 8 metres above the river. 


And this is a shot taken inside the 'living quarters' where 3 or 4 homeless kids have been living.


To escape the dangers on the streets, the kids are hiding in places that put their lives at very great risk. This is a terrible situation, and one that we cannot sit back and accept.

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

Graduating


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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hero of the streets



Meet Vi, hero to many of Hanoi's homeless and neglected kids. In a world where the bad guys always seem to make the news, this is one story that deserves to be told.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Second home

For the past month I have been on the road, catching up with friends and supporters in both Australia and New Zealand. As usual, it's been a whirlwind trip with not enough time, but along the way I have found great encouragement and inspiration.

I'm in New Zealand at the moment, where Blue Dragon has some very special connections. We have some great NZ friends, particularly people who have spent time in Vietnam and come to know or even volunteer at the Blue Dragon centre. And even more than that, New Zealand has become the second home to several Blue Dragon kids, who have been incredibly fortunate to earn scholarships to study here.

The NTEC College in Auckland has trained up 3 of our young people in the past, and now a fourth is studying there: a young man named Can, who is in his first year of a business course. One of NTEC's past students, Chinh, now lives and works in Taupo, where he joined forces with friends and supporters of Blue Dragon to organise a fantastic fundraising dinner. Chinh is so much a part of the community that, during the evening, the president of the local soccer club in which he plays asked me if we could send 10 more "Chinh's" to Taupo!

 Singers and dancers at the Blue Dragon Taupo dinner!

The community spirit in Taupo was extraordinary. Dozens of local businesses and companies supported the event, and the director of a language school, the Taupo Language & Outdoor Education Centre, announced that they would offer a scholarship to one Blue Dragon student to study English. What an incredible opportunity - and that will be the second time the school has offered us such a scholarship.

Meanwhile the financial community from around New Zealand came together for a boxing match in Auckland; some participants even flew in from Australia to take part. It was all great fun, and the boxers were mostly bankers, slogging it out for the kids of Blue Dragon. I'd never been to a boxing match before that, and it definitely ranks up there with 'unusual fundraising events' - but it was a terrific event!

Fighting for the kids of Blue Dragon

And finally I traveled south to Wellington, where the Blue Dragon Children's Trust (New Zealand) has been supporting our work in Vietnam for about 4 years now. The Trust organises an annual book fair in Ngaio, as well as a film evening; they're a great bunch of friends who really care about Blue Dragon and Vietnam.

 Annual book fair in Ngaio - every April!

While here, I attended a ball organised by the students of St Oran's College, and visited both Wellington College and Hutt International Boys' School. All around, it's been incredibly encouraging to receive such support and interest. I'll be heading back to Vietnam tomorrow with a renewed energy - and it's just as well, because so much is going on at Blue Dragon.

During this time away, we've been involved in rescuing kids from garment factories and young women trafficked into China; and now we are preparing to represent a former victim of trafficking in court on Tuesday. These have all been very significant cases; not only for the people involved, but because of the implications of our work. Every child who is rescued, and every trafficker who is detained, signals to the world that trafficking is not, and never will be, acceptable. All the money that Blue Dragon's friends have raised here in New Zealand will be going to the Blue Dragon Rescue! appeal to ensure that even more kids can be brought home and kept safe.

And so, I am excited to be heading home to Vietnam, and ready to get back into the swing of things. The support of our NZ friends has been amazing - and I hope to be back soon!

P.S.: Listen out on Monday  June 16 for an interview with Bryan Crump - Radio New Zealand from 7pm.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The rescue plan

With Blue Dragon's rescue appeal well underway, lots of people are asking: How do you actually do it? How does a rescue of a trafficking victim work? 

So we've created this chart to show the steps involved. It's up on the website, too, if you want to have a look there.

 



Sunday, May 25, 2014

It's possible

This has been a great month at Blue Dragon.

We've rescued 4 children from sweatshops - 2 girls and 2 boys, all 13 years old.

We've assisted 2 girls aged 16 who had been trafficked from Vietnam to China, held against their will for 10 days, and were to be sold to a brothel. They escaped by jumping out of a 3rd story window.

We've reunited 5 homeless teens with their families. These are all boys who had run away from home for a variety of reasons, and were sleeping rough in Hanoi.

And the month isn't yet over: we're still looking for more kids who have been trafficked, and have met more homeless teens who are in need of help.

For the Blue Dragon team in Vietnam, it can often seem like we just deal with one problem after another... and the problems keep coming.

But there is such tremendous hope that things can get better, lives can change. There will always be somebody else in need of help, but we will never be powerless to help them.

As long as we can see that change is possible, we'll keep on working. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Terrified


Over the weekend, Blue Dragon's rescue team went in search of children trafficked from the central province of Hue to the garment factories of Ho Chi Minh City.

We're looking for more than 20 kids in total, and so far have found 4. We'll get them home today, and continue the investigation to find the others in coming weeks.

Of the 4 children, 2 were girls and 2 were boys. All aged 13. All trafficked on the false promise of training and education. All sold to home-based businesses which produce clothes and garments.

Last night, the team sent through a brief report about the kids and their conditions. Among the info was this statement:

Hard to explain what the kids are going through. When we were in the car, we asked one of the kids: 'What do you think about being here in Ho Chi Minh City?' The boy replied instantly: 'Terrified.' It sounds like he has endured that kind of feeling since he arrived here. 


That boy, and 3 other children from rural Vietnam, are heading home today. They have a 600km journey ahead of them, a beautiful reunion with family when they get there. But more children are out there somewhere, hoping that somebody will be along to find them and take them home too.

And a postscript: 

This month Blue Dragon launched an appeal for funds; we desperately need to raise money to expand this rescue work and find more kids like these 4. If you believe that this kind of work is important, please donate so that more kids can escape the terror of trafficking. Every dollar helps.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The end is not nigh, but that's OK

I received an email this morning, inviting me to end human trafficking by supporting a particular charity.

It's a wonderful thought, that we really can end human trafficking. As the founder of a charity that also fights trafficking, perhaps people expect that I, too, believe in "ending it."

But my view is that human trafficking is like an incurable, yet treatable, disease. We will always have it with us. There's no permanent end, no miracle cure to be had.

So then - is it hopeless? Absolutely not!

The fight against trafficking is a fight worth waging. Here's why.

1. The battles are just as important as the war.

While human trafficking may well be with us forever (and if not, I will gladly admit I am wrong!), specific aspects of it can be extinguished. Here in Vietnam, Blue Dragon is aiming to see the end of rural children being trafficked to sweat shops; that's a whole trade in human misery that can feasibly  be brought to an end.

2. Reduction is worthwhile, even if abolition is unattainable.

If we cannot end trafficking once and for all, it is still a worthy goal to reduce it and curtail its growth. Medical science shouldn't abandon the idea of treating sick people simply because they cannot always succeed and more people will get sick; and nor should we give up the fight against trafficking simply because some people will still get trafficked.

3. There's a 'conscience' element to this.

Human trafficking stirs emotions. Recent years have seen a surge in support for the anti-trafficking movement: everyone from school kids to celebrities are speaking up about it. Something about human trafficking touches on our conscience, no matter who we are; it's a despicable crime, and deep down we all know it. Unlike most other crimes committed in our world, this is one that stirs us to act. To do nothing would be akin to the crime itself.

4. Ask a trafficked person.

In the 'development sector' we prefer to use the term 'survivor' rather than 'victim' because the former is empowering, the latter disempowering; but a person who has been trafficked has experienced a degradation of the worst kind. They have been victims. Trafficking imprisons people and puts them to work against their will, usually for some form of menial or dangerous labour, or for sex. Nobody who has been trafficked would question the value of doing something about it. Even if we cannot end all trafficking, there are individual victims - survivors, if you will - who are right now hoping that someone will come and help them. We can end it for some, even if not for all.


I do fear that trafficking is a disease our world will always have to live with. But I don't fear that we can therefore do nothing, nor that we must accept trafficking as part of the human condition.

The end of human trafficking is not nigh, but that's OK. There's still plenty that we can do, and that's worth doing.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The hanger


Every week, Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team meets new kids who are in complicated and dangerous situations on the streets of Hanoi. Many are the target of traffickers, which is a relatively new phenomenon for the city; boys as well as girls face serious exploitation unless they get help quickly.

One boy, "Vu," was in such a situation when we met him almost 2 years ago, aged 13.

His family loved him very much, but several complexities lead him to leaving home and taking to the streets, where he immediately became a target for traffickers. Although Vu met Blue Dragon's Outreach workers, he was in such a state of despair that he didn't know who to trust. And then he vanished.

About a year later, he resurfaced. He was taller and seemed physically healthy, but his face belied the truth. Vu had been through a year of hell.

Even now, Vu says almost nothing about what happened during that year. But we know enough to understand the deep pain he lives with. One comfort is that, thanks to Blue Dragon's work with the Vietnamese police, 2 of the main people responsible for his 'year of hell' now live in prison cells.

Most of the trafficked boys who we work with act out their pain by getting in to all sorts of trouble. Not a week goes by that one of them doesn't get caught by the police for some minor violation... or come to tell us that their girlfriend is pregnant... or drops out of school for a few days. But not Vu. He quietly and smilingly goes about making friends with everyone at Blue Dragon. He tries to blend in, to be like everyone else, but when he thinks nobody is looking the pain returns to his eyes and the sorrow is etched into his face.

However, in the past week, Vu has achieved two major milestones: he has returned to school, and returned for a visit to his family home.

Going back to school was a way of declaring that he has healed. It took him all this time, but finally Vu told us that he was ready to get back to his studies. He didn't want to go to a 'special' school, either; he wanted to go back to a mainstream secondary school. With the school year nearly over, his timing wasn't great, but the school generously agreed for him to sit in on classes as a way of preparing for the new school year in September.

And then came Vu's next pronouncement: he wanted to visit his family.

Since leaving several years ago, Vu has not stepped foot back in his home. He's gotten progressively closer, though. Some months ago he agreed for Blue Dragon staff to accompany him home... but at the last minute couldn't bring himself to do it. So after a 200km drive, he hid in the car while the staff went and spoke with his father and grandfather.

Then at Lunar New Year he almost went home again... This time, he went to the nearest village to his home, called his father to come and have tea, and then returned to Hanoi. That was a 12 hour round-trip for a 30 minute drink.

But today Vu did it. He returned home, dressed in his school uniform so that everyone could see he's a 'normal' kid.

I was both fortunate and proud that Vu asked me to go along with him on this trip. These days I rarely get to go on such journeys myself: rightly so, it's my Vietnamese colleagues who accompany kids on their family business. But when Vu invited me to join him, I immediately agreed. I knew how important this journey was.

It was a long trip to get there, and Vu was nervous along the way; but once home, those worries melted away. Today was also the death anniversary of Vu's grandmother, so many relatives and neighbours had gathered at his family home. Having Vu return - with a foreigner in tow! - was a huge event for everybody.

A meal was prepared, and lots of typical 'family gathering' stuff going on, but there were also many touching moments, discretely held. Perhaps the most beautiful was when Vu's grandfather, 87 years old and hard of hearing, sat by Vu and tearfully encouraged him to work hard at school, always do his best, and remember his family when he (the grandfather) is gone.

Vu was shy about me taking photos at the house, but I took this one of a home-made clothes hanger in the yard. It struck me because I'd never seen one before. With so little money and resources, this family simply could not afford any luxuries, such as hangers for their clothes. So they made this one, out of a stick and some string.


Of itself, this hanger isn't particularly remarkable. But standing in Vu's home, seeing how little they have and how much they have all struggled, the hanger reminded me of just how unimportant 'things' are.

I have always seen hangers as basic household items. Yet for some families, they are a luxury; an unnecessary expense in the context of so many pressing needs.

For Vu's family, the list of needs is so long: hangers are surely last on that list. First and foremost is their need for family healing. Vu has been through such terrible times, but is now finding stability and thinking of the future. That's so much more important than having 'things.'

Life is starting to look good for Vu. He has a home with Blue Dragon; he's successfully returned to school; and he has re-established contact with his family. The reunion went so well that there's no doubt he can be confident to go back again any time.

Many struggles lay ahead, but I am optimistic of Vu's future. Maybe he doesn't have many 'things' to call his own, but as each day passes he has greater inner strength, and now he has started rebuilding a relationship with his family.

What could be more important?