The $3 fix

Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar international industry, with estimates that it generates up to $32 billion a year.

Fighting against it requires substantial resources, time – and money.

Among the many organisations which are devoted to ending human trafficking and slavery, there are countless ideas and strategies to combat the phenomenon. Everyone is trying to find a way to ‘move the dial’ – to make some measurable impact and keep people safe.

Blue Dragon has developed and utilised a simple intervention which is both useful for combating human trafficking, and which gives people access to their civil rights: citizen registration.

Throughout Vietnam, tens of thousands of people grow up and live with no birth certificate; this number may be in the hundreds of thousands but until now nobody knows.

Most people in this situation belong to ethnic minority communities, and are extremely poor.

Without their births being registered, they never appear in national surveys, they have no right to attend school or receive welfare, they can never have a legal job or pay tax, and they do not appear on any register of citizens.

While all of these factors increase a person’s vulnerability to being trafficked, it’s the last point that is most significant. If somebody does not ‘officially’ exist, then it becomes extremely difficult for them to be listed as missing, or to have an official report if they are trafficked.

It’s also very hard for police to start a search for someone who has never ‘officially’ existed.

Registering citizens is therefore crucial to enabling people to access their rights, and keeping them safe from human trafficking.

The act of finding people who are without registration – or whose registration is incorrect or incomplete – and getting their legal documentation in order is usually quite quick and straightforward. (When people have been separated from their home community for a long time it can be much more difficult, but still not impossible).

Last week, Blue Dragon visited a community in Nghe An province of Vietnam, where human trafficking is a major problem. In the course of 2 days, we registered over 600 people – mostly women and children – many of who had never officially been listed as citizens before.

This brings the total number of people we have registered so far to over 12,000.

The cost of this comes to about $3 per person, a tiny price to pay to reduce someone’s vulnerability while giving them access to their full rights as a citizen.

This practical, inexpensive intervention will not end human trafficking, but it’s a vital part of the overall strategy.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Start with one.

There’s an awful lot of bad news about.

It’s hard to know where to start.

In a world that’s too familiar with mass shootings and terrorist attacks, the horrific events in Christchurch stand out because New Zealand seemed such an unlikely place for this kind of thing to happen. 49 dead because someone didn’t like their religion. How can that happen anywhere, let alone in one of the world’s most peaceful countries?

Scientists are saying that there’s only 12 years or so left to really turn around climate change, but the effort needed to do so is far beyond the will of most of our politicians – or of us. Who’s going to give their next purchases, or have fewer children, or eat less meat, in the hope that it will be enough to slow down the destruction of the planet?

With so much doom and gloom, stretching right across the globe, it would be easy for us to just throw our hands up in despair and give up. Why not party on, enjoy what’s left, and forget about tomorrow?

I’d like to say that we’re smarter than that – but the truth is we’re probably not.

And yet there’s still something in us that pushes us forward, a voice inside that tells us it’s worth fighting for better.

Because we DO see progress and change. Equality between the sexes may yet be far away, but we have seen examples of countries, cities and companies removing the barriers that stop women from rising. It can be done and the world doesn’t end – it gets better!

And while we’re a long way off congratulating ourselves on how we treat the planet, we’re seeing governments start to ban plastic bags, and we’re seeing ordinary people take action themselves. Sixteen year old Greta Thunberg is surely on her way to a Nobel prize for inspiring the movement that brought 1.4 million children to the streets to demand that they be given a chance of having an inhabitable planet to live on.

In my own corner of the world, I’m confronted with human trafficking and child exploitation daily. Last week we rescued two young women who had been enslaved in a brothel on an island. That they could even make contact with us was a miracle. They were so desperate to escape the horrific abuse that was being dealt to them that at one point they sent a message asking if we were really sure that we could help; if not, they said, they would kill themselves rather than carry on any longer.

But they’re free now. They’re home. And while it is so easy to think of all the people still in slavery, still homeless, still living in terror, we have to remind ourselves of all those who we have helped.

I don’t kid myself that we’re ever going to end suffering in this world. What drives me is two simple beliefs.

First, I believe that it’s worth fighting to make things better. It’s inherently the right thing to do, no matter the chance of success.

And second, when I look into the eye of every person we have set free from slavery (820 as of today), every homeless child we have helped to go home (523), every survivor of abuse we defend in court (80), I know that changing one person’s life is the same as changing the world.

It’s normal, and fine, to feel bad about world events. But don’t let that feeling turn into a belief that nothing can be done.

Something can be done, and it’s up to you. Make one person’s life better. Bring a smile to one person who is feeling lonely. Hug someone who needs it.

And you’re already on your way to changing the world.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

The extra mile

Last week, Blue Dragon held one of those events that NGOs sometimes do – the launch of a new program.

Meetings and workshops drive me crazy. They rarely feel productive, and I sometimes wonder if the whole purpose of conferences is just to make people feel like they’re actually serving a greater purpose, when in reality they are just attending conferences…

This launch was important, though, because it brought together people from across the province of Ha Giang, as well as agencies and organisations in Hanoi, to share and discuss, and commit to finding solutions to the end of human trafficking in one of Vietnam’s poorest and most vulnerable provinces.

Bordering China, Ha Giang is both spectacularly scenic, and desperately poor. In a province of 770,000 people, there are 54,000 women who are completely illiterate.

And so the program launch brought together police, district and provincial leaders, a director of the national Police Academy, senior Women’s Union officials, the leader of the anti-trafficking unit of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and representatives of vocational training NGOs based in Hanoi. A rare multi-disciplinary effort.

It all went very well, and the program is now officially underway. But it was events that took place the day before the launch that really exemplified how Blue Dragon works.

Several of our team were in Ha Giang prior to the launch to get everything ready. Unexpectedly, a call came through asking for help. A young western woman, Vanessa, was staying in a village way up in the mountains and became aware of a highly distressed girl, aged about 10, wandering the streets alone.

The girl seemed unresponsive to all other people, as though deaf. She was filthy and malnourished, and slept out in the wild.

Vanessa managed to forge a fragile friendship with the girl, but as a foreigner knew she couldn’t stay nor really find out how to help.

When my staff heard of this, they abandoned their event preparation to travel to the village. As the crow flies it wasn’t far, but in a car it was a 4 hour drive in each direction, along a pot-holed and windy road.

We learned some of the girl’s story from members of the community. “Tam’s” father is dead, and her mother has long been missing in China, probably trafficked and sold. Tam was left at home with a brother who could not care for her, and eventually wandered away. She was now living wild, refusing to speak to anyone and appearing to have lost her hearing and senses. It was as though she had lost her mind.

Even though local people were concerned, there seemed to be no way anybody could help. There are some local services, but everyone had an excuse for why they couldn’t do anything. So my team pushed and asked questions, and finally a local protection centre agreed to take Tam in.

It’s easy to judge the local community for not doing more, but keep in mind that this is in a very remote area. There’s no funding, no specialised service, no expertise. People were afraid to help because they didn’t know what to do.

But now Tam is on the way to being safe. It’s early days so I dare not say she’s even on the way to recovery; that remains to be seen. We have a commitment from some agencies to provide emergency accommodation and medical care, and to get a court ruling that her mother is missing so that Tam can officially qualify for special care.

And of course, if we can find out where her mother is, Blue Dragon just might be able to bring her home.

It even turns out that little Tam isn’t deaf; when Blue Dragon staff called her name, she responded. Most likely she is experiencing deep trauma, and if so she’s going to need some very skilled counselling and support. And that’s something we can help with for sure.

Once the team had spent some time with Tam and found out what they could, it was a 4 hour drive back to the provincial capital, and back to preparing for the launch.

And that’s what I love about Blue Dragon. The importance of an event never overrides the needs of an individual child.

Tam was in a desperate state, so she became the priority.

My hope now is that we really can get her the long term care that will bring healing. It’s going to be a very long journey.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.