Family

Boi is a pretty cool dude.

He’s wearing his hair long today, but every other time you see him he has a new style. He’s grown quite tall in the past 2 years and walks with a confident, sometimes cocky, stride. He’s no longer the skinny little kid we met 5 years ago, homeless on the streets of Hanoi and so deeply drawn into himself.

Back then, Hanoi was a different city and Boi was a different person.

He had come to the city to escape an abusive family, and had found even more abuse on the streets. At that time, Hanoi was just starting to experience a wave of child abuse, mostly against young boys who, like Boi, were homeless.

Word had gotten around that the kids in Hanoi were easy prey. A few foreigners living here, and quite a few local men, became bold in approaching underage boys around the lakes and in the parks. They organised pick-up spots in public places at night, set up online chat groups to exchange information and arrange meetings, and abused the boys sometimes right there in the parks and internet cafes – they were completely unafraid of getting caught.

Vietnamese law did not recognise the sexual abuse of males (it does now) so it was incredibly difficult for police to stop this – but not impossible. Blue Dragon’s lawyers identified a loophole under which people could be arrested for abusing underage boys, and so people started getting caught and charged, and gradually the tide of unfettered sexual abuse receded.

For Boi, it was too late.

He had already been through it all. How he survived, I cannot imagine. But he did. It took several years for him to learn to trust again and to be able to share his feelings. At Blue Dragon he found love and acceptance – care without any strings attached – and he started to thrive.

Early this year, it came time for Boi to move on. He had turned 18 and was itching for independence and his own income. So he moved away from Blue Dragon, way across the other side of the city, and started in a new job.

Boi doesn’t get to come back and visit very often as his work takes him out of town most days. We stay in touch all the time, and just recently he took a few days to come back and see us.

Chatting over a coffee, Boi told me that he loves his new job and he’s learning lots – but in another year or two, he wants to come back and work at Blue Dragon.

Secretly I’m thrilled. About 10% of our staff are young adults who we once helped, and they play roles across the organisation, from administrative jobs to social workers to formal leadership positions. Boi would be a brilliant addition to the team. He’s quirky and clever, hard working, and the most loyal guy you could ever meet. His experiences on the streets mean he has a deep personal understanding of what the Blue Dragon kids face.

But I need Boi to have time away from us, finding his own way and coming back when he can truly say he’s independent and has succeeded on his own.

So I told him that I thought his idea of coming to work with us was great, but asked him why he would want to do so. He is happy in his new job, he has many friends where he works, and he has already proven to himself that he no longer needs Blue Dragon to stand tall in the world. He’s building a great life for himself – so why come back?

Boi just shrugged, in the way teens do, pretending to be nonchalant. But when he answered, he kept his eyes on the floor, trying to hide his emotion.

“Because,” he said, “Blue Dragon is my family.”

 

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Vulnerability

My is back in school now. She’s studying in Grade 11 high up in the mountains of north-west Vietnam, living in a boarding house because the journey from her home to school is too far to travel each day.

Seeing her with her classmates, she looks like any senior student and has all the same worries and burdens of any teenage school girl.

But My has also been through an experience few of us can fully understand. In February 2017, at age 15, she was trafficked and sold as a bride across the border in China.

My is a H’mong girl; her family lives high in mountains in a stilt house and her parents have little education. When their daughter first went missing, they didn’t realise for several days. They thought she was at school. The school thought she was at home. Nobody knew that she had been lured away by an experienced trafficking ring, then forcibly abducted and sold against her will.

It was well over a year before anybody knew what had happened to My. By all accounts, she had simply disappeared. Nobody had any idea where she was, until Vietnamese police intercepted some traffickers in the process of taking another victim across the border.

Their arrest led to the information about My’s whereabouts, and Blue Dragon was able to send in a team to find her and bring her home.

* * *

In the news articles and public discussions about human trafficking, there’s a lot of speculation as to the reasons people are trafficked.

People often assume that parents sell their children to make money, either out of desperation or wickedness. That may well happen, but in all of the 780+ cases that Blue Dragon has so far dealt with, we’ve only seen this once. (And within hours of the mother selling her son, she rang us begging to get him back).

So what is it? Poverty? Lack of education? Lack of opportunity?

Probably all of these factors play a part, and more besides. Vulnerability to trafficking is never one-dimensional; there are always multiple issues at play. It may be gender, but both genders are trafficked; it may be poverty, but wealthy people get trafficked too.

One particular vulnerability we see here in Vietnam is ethnicity. In a country of 90 million people, somewhere between 10 and 15% of the population belong to one of 53 ethnic minority communities such as the H’mong, each with their own distinct culture and language. Why is it “somewhere between 10 and 15%”? Precisely because people in these communities are less likely to have their births recorded and more likely to live in remote areas, official records of their lives are more difficult to capture. And so, enslavement and exploitation is vastly more likely.

Traffickers have a tendency to target people whose families are less likely to have the resources to go looking for them. They tend to target people who might go missing for a few days before anybody starts to worry. They tend to target people who have weak protection under the law, by virtue of a lack of birth registration, or living far from urban centres.

In Vietnam, ethnic minority people tick all of these boxes.

Increasingly, Blue Dragon is working with more and more rural ethnic communities, as well as children from these communities who find themselves homeless in the capital city. At the moment we have 65 girls and boys in our care from several ethnic minority communities and are working with university Student Associations of ethnic minority groups.

But it’s the representation of ethnic minority people in our rescue statistics that is most astounding. Of the 783 people we have rescued from both labour exploitation and sexual slavery, 329 identify as belonging to an ethnic minority group. That’s 42% of the people we have rescued, despite ethnic minority people making up no more than 15% of the national population.

Teenagers like My deserve to be safe from harm, no matter where they live or which ethnic group they belong to anywhere in the world.

By targeting minority groups, traffickers hope that their chance of being caught and punished is less; they chase the most vulnerable because they think nobody will care or make the effort to bring them home.

We have to show them that they are wrong.

 

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.