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?