As she was nearing the border, Ha Le started getting nervous.
She was inside the van with the others: 5 more women from her province who, like her, had agreed to make the trip north to China.
Ha Le is heavily pregnant. The baby’s father disappeared from the scene the moment Ha Le told him she was expecting, and every day since then she went to work in the fields wondering how she would survive.
How could she work when the baby came? What would she tell her parents – and what would they say? Would she be the subject of neighborhood gossip and be shunned forever? What sort of life would her child have?
It was almost too good to be true when she was contacted by a man she had met some years ago at the market where she had been working. He knew she was in trouble, and had a brilliant idea to help her out. A win-win.
The man knew of childless couples in China who were desperate to adopt. And to top it off, they had plenty of money, so were happy to give some cash to Ha Le as a show of their sincerity and as a sign of the prosperous life her baby would grow into.
It was all perfectly legal, he assured her. But still, he recommended she keep it a secret – in case anyone was jealous of her good fortune.
Of course, it was all a ploy. The man was a trafficker, and was making the same offer to women around the province.
When Ha Le first climbed into the van to set out on the journey, she knew something was odd when three other passengers were also visibly pregnant. The remaining two young women were not; their destiny, it appears, was to be sold and impregnated.
In reality, if Ha Le received any money at all it would be a pittance compared to the vast sum that the trafficker and his ring were taking. This was their trick: convincing Vietnamese women that a loving, prosperous couple in China were in want of a child and could guarantee a wonderful life, in contrast to the poverty and hardship of the birth mother.
Once across the border, the situation is rarely as promised. The buyer may be a single man, unable to marry because of his low status or a disability, but who wants an heir. Or maybe a family buys the child, wanting to raise a worker and servant. Those with slightly more money might pay to impregnate a woman himself, so that he has a biological child, or force her into artificial insemination.
It’s a cold, miserable trade in human lives.
The coronavirus pandemic has been like a grenade thrown into the fight against human trafficking. An already-complex situation has been blasted into chaos.
During the past 9 months, Blue Dragon has seen a sharp rise in cases like Ha Le’s – women who agree to go China, believing they are within the law and even doing the right thing for their unborn child, but who have been deceived and manipulated.
We’ve seen a spike in cases of teenage girls, typically aged 14 to 16, needing to support their families so setting off in search of a job and instead being forced into sex work.
There has even been an increase in Cambodian girls and women being trafficked through Vietnam and into China.
The types and extent of trafficking cases have become completely unpredictable. Traffickers are trying new tricks and taking new routes. What we’ve seen in the past 15 years is no predictor of what we will see tomorrow.
But: the situation is not hopeless.
Ha Le was rescued this weekend before her van reached the border with China. Working with police from her home province and the border province, Blue Dragon was able to get help to the women in time. They are now safe, the trafficker has been arrested, and a long, complex legal investigation will follow.
The traffickers may be changing the way they work, but we can too. And we’re seeing increased efforts both within Vietnam and China to find and repatriate women and girls who are being held in slavery.
Ha Le faces difficult days ahead. Blue Dragon will do what we can to see her through but the journey will not be easy.
And whatever grenade goes off next – whatever change in tactic, or new victim profile the traffickers decide to target – we must be ready.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is working toward the end of human trafficking.