Reform

Sold into a forced marriage far from home, Na never expected to be a victim of human trafficking. But in this case, she wasn’t the only victim…

Na was 16 when she was sold.

She lived by the river in a simple hut. Her father, Cong, is a fisherman. Although he works all day the money he brings home doesn’t go very far. Most of their family income was from Na’s brother, who worked as a chef in Ho Chi Minh City until COVID came and the restaurant closed.

So Na did what countless girls, boys and young adults around Vietnam did. She decided to leave school and get a job. She wanted to help and she knew that by earning some money her family would get through these difficult times.

Her betrayal was at the hand of someone she thought was a friend. Na could never have imagined the horrors that would unfold – or that she would be sold to a man thousands of miles from home.

Na’s father Cong couldn’t understand the terror that his daughter was going through, but he knew something was wrong. He reported to the police everything he knew – but he wanted to do more.

Seeking help from a neighbor, he took to social media to implore the world to help. He would sell his fishing boat and his house to pay a reward for anyone who could bring Na home safely.

Cong’s public pleas for help swiftly attracted a response. A young man rang just days later with a promise. He had seen Na being taken into China. He had some friends in the area who could help. But it would be costly. The young man asked for $5000.

Never in his life had Cong seen so much money, but if it meant that Na could return home, he would find a way. He approached the local money lenders, whose interest rates were up to 5% per day, and soon had the unbelievable sum of cash in his hand.

Na was gone, but Cong now had a reason to hope.

But once that money was transferred, Cong’s phone fell silent. The young man had disappeared.

It was fully a week before Cong accepted that he had been robbed. He lay awake all night, hating himself for being such a fool. Hating himself for making it even less likely that Na would ever be found. He wondered if ending his own life would in any way make up for what had happened to his only daughter.

And later, he would learn the bitter news that he had given money to the very person who had trafficked his daughter.

Blue Dragon found Na three months after she was taken. We organised a rescue operation and got her back to Vietnam where – after two weeks in COVID quarantine – she could finally get home to her father’s loving arms.

A father and daughter reunited

Cong and Na, and all their extended family, are relieved beyond words to be back together. But this is an ordeal that will haunt them forever.

The trauma that Na has experienced. The massive debt that Cong now has on his shoulders. Their months apart, and the extraordinary stress that they all lived through. The loss of their fishing boat – which was the only source of income for this family.

Recovery will take many, many years.

Blue Dragon’s philosophy is that we will help as much as we can, for as long as we are needed. However, there’s a bigger picture at play here.

What services and support should Na’s family be eligible to receive from the government?

When the trafficker is prosecuted and the court decides on compensation to be paid to Na, should her father Cong also be eligible for financial compensation?

As Na inevitably goes through the system – giving statements, applying for social assistance, re-enrolling in school – what training will each official she encounters have to support her on this journey? What rules are there to ensure her privacy and her dignity?

The truth is, many factors impact on the recovery for survivors of human trafficking and their families.

Right now, Vietnam’s law on human trafficking – the law that sets out all these details like the right to services, support and compensation – is being reviewed. And this means a chance to make a change for good.

Meeting between Blue Dragon and police to discuss areas of the law to reform

Blue Dragon is in a special position to contribute to this review. We’ve rescued over 1,000 people from slavery. In court we have represented 92 survivors of trafficking as their traffickers are prosecuted. And we’ve given psychological counselling and practical assistance to over 1,700 survivors as part of their recovery process.

So as this review gets underway, Blue Dragon is playing a key role in contributing our experience and ideas. Our strategy of having a multidisciplinary approach – with lawyers, psychologists and social workers all together on one team – means we can offer some rich insight on what’s needed in the new law.

This is a chance to make the system work better for everyone.

For Na and Cong, we will continue helping them as best we can while they recover from their terrifying experience. And through this law review, we will ensure that the whole system is better able to support families like them in the future.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. We are especially thankful to the Czech government’s Transition program for funding our ongoing involvement in this law reform initiative.

Leap to freedom

Attempting to escape from slavery is an act of extraordinary courage. For Hoa, the scars of her ordeal will live with her forever… but she will not let them define her.

Hoa was not yet 17 when she was trafficked.

How it happened is a very familiar story. She was facing hard times. Someone she knew offered to help. She left home thinking she was on her way to start a new job, only to find it was a trick.

What happened next is even more devastating.

Hoa found herself in China, sold twice before eventually being sold to a man with an intellectual disability. He wanted a wife so he could have a child, and for him that’s all that Hoa was: a vessel for a baby.

In the 6 months that followed, life was hell. Hoa had no chance to escape. She was locked into an apartment in an unknown city. She knew nobody, and had no way to call for help.

When Hoa could take it no more, she made a breathtaking decision. She jumped from the apartment, 2 storeys high, determined to either have freedom, or death.

Hoa survived, but she was severely injured. The fall damaged her spine, leaving her unable to move the lower part of her body. The pain was unimaginable, but her captor didn’t want to seek medical help – because he didn’t want to pay the expense. Instead, he took her back upstairs and kept her for another 4 months before finally admitting her to hospital.

In the safety of the hospital, Hoa was able to try again for freedom. The staff realised something terrible had happened and called the police. Now Hoa was safe from her captor; but she was not yet home. It would be another year, following extensive treatment and making statements to police from her hospital bed, before she could finally return to Vietnam.

Blue Dragon assisted with Hoa’s return, and since then have continued working with her. But how can anyone heal from such a traumatic episode?

Hoa is now fully reliant on her wheelchair for mobility. She will never walk again.

And the memories of the horror she experienced – tricked by a friend, sold into a waking nightmare, leaping from the building, then left for months to lay motionless with a serious spinal injury instead of receiving immediate treatment – will never go away.

In her darkest days, Hoa showed extraordinary courage by jumping for her freedom. This same courage has carried her through the months of psychological and physical therapy, wheelchair training, and learning to live independently with her disability… until finally Hoa was ready to return to her studies.

Hoa practicing her IT skills

Hoa’s story doesn’t end there. Because this week, she has started a whole new chapter in life: her very first job.

When she left home at age 17, that was all she wanted. Employment. An income. A chance to live a life free from poverty.

Someone took advantage of her need, and the impact on Hoa’s life was catastrophic. But she isn’t going to let that stop her.

She now works in an IT firm. It’s an entry-level job in a company that has great policies for employing people with disabilities. They hired her because she’s smart, brave, and beams with optimism about the future.

At times Hoa’s situation seemed impossible. She could see no way out. To overcome this as she has is an incredible feat of bravery.

Life will never be what it could have been. But it will be what she makes it.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues children from crisis.

The Journey Home

After 3 years in slavery and 2 weeks in quarantine, Phuong is finally home. But her hardships are far from over.

Phuong’s rescue from slavery and return to Vietnam defied the odds.

After 3 years held in China against her will, Phuong was desperate to return home to her baby daughter and her mother. At the very first opportunity, she risked her life to make a call for help.

Illiterate and relying on a prosthetic leg, Phuong’s options for escape were severely limited. But Blue Dragon’s operation in late November found her and brought Phuong back to Vietnam, as detailed in my earlier post, Almost Impossible.

After 2 weeks in quarantine and time with Blue Dragon’s counsellors, Phuong went home on Friday.

We all want to believe that going home, a family reunion, will mean ‘happy ever after’. Sometimes it is. But for Phuong, the journey home was never going to be easy.

For a start, the road home is not a road. It’s a canal, winding through the Mekong Delta. Phuong and the Blue Dragon staff accompanying her rowed down the waterway on the final leg of her very long journey home.

Rowing along the canal to get home.

And then came the realisation that Phuong’s home is not a house. It’s a tent.

Phuong’s family home: a tent by the canal.

This is Phuong’s home. This is where she was raised, where she gave birth, and where she now lives.

It’s clear why the traffickers chose Phuong. They saw her as an easy target. Few opportunities. An extremely difficult life. And her family had no resources to go searching when she went missing.

Her family may be extremely poor, but there’s one thing they have plenty of: love. Phuong’s return home was a tearful, joyful occasion. Even though this family has so few material possessions, they are back together and they have each other.

The moment that Phuong and her mother reunited.

Rescue from slavery is never the end of the story. It’s just the beginning of a new chapter.

For Phuong, her 3 year old daughter and her own parents, this family reunion is a chance for a new start in life. They’re going to need a lot of help over a long time, but now Phuong finally has a reason to hope that better days really are ahead.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is working to end human trafficking and slavery. Please donate to this important work if you can.

Glimmer

After 21 years in slavery, Duong is home. How can anyone survive such an experience?

Duong was 17 when she was trafficked from Vietnam to China and sold into slavery.

That was 21 years ago, but she remembers every detail like it was just last week.

Her rescue last month and her return to her home in Nghe An province a few days ago seem almost miraculous. Her family believed that she was long dead; after so many years of absence, they never thought they would see their daughter again.

Duong and her mother, reunited after 21 years in slavery.
Duong and her mother, reunited.

It was a joyful reunion, but Duong’s homecoming was shrouded with sadness. Her parents have divorced. Her younger brother died in an accident. Her grandmother passed away.

So many major milestones and events that she has missed – that she’s known nothing of until now. The home she is returning to is not the home that she was taken from two decades previously.

During 2020, Blue Dragon has seen a marked increase in the rescues and repatriations of women who were trafficked long ago – 10 and 20 years ago, or more.

It bends the mind to imagine that any person could live so long in slavery. How can it be?

While every case is different, there are some similarities that help us understand how Duong could survive so long and still dream of returning home.

On first being trafficked and enslaved, any person will put up a fight – they know it is a fight for their lives. Some will succeed and find a way back to freedom quickly. Others, like Duong, will be beaten and tortured until the hope of escape seems a fantasy.

Many in that situation learn to live with their horrific new reality. If they’ve been sold as a bride, they might have children and raise them, seeing them through school and into adulthood. They might become friendly with their captor and genuinely have moments of happiness as the years go by.

But in every case that Blue Dragon has seen, no matter how much time passes, there remains a glimmer of hope.

The woman or man may adapt and grow familiar with the life they have been sold into. They may appear to enjoy life. But the dream of freedom never dies.

So it was with Duong. After 21 years in slavery, she has lived longer in captivity in China than she has had freedom in Vietnam. There is so much of her story that she has not told yet, and maybe never will.

But she kept that glimmer of hope alive, and today she is in her family home, in her mother’s arms, where she has always wanted to be.

And that’s why the rescue of trafficked people continues to be such urgent and vital work. Right now, there is one more person keeping alive the hope that someone will come to take them home after years in slavery. One more person dreaming that they too will be back with their family.

Let’s not fail them.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is working to end human trafficking and slavery. Please donate to this important work if you can.

Rescue in the days of coronavirus

It took Lan more than 4 years to find a chance of escape.

In the end, it was the coronavirus that gave her the opportunity to call for help.

Trafficked from Vietnam into Hunan province, she was sold to a violent Chinese man who treated her as an object and beat her mercilessly. But as the world panicked over COVID-19, he became distracted.

With their city in lockdown, the husband saw no reason to be paranoid that Lan might escape. His inattention allowed her to steal a mobile phone, and she called her family back in southern Vietnam.

Word reached Blue Dragon, and we contacted Lan immediately in the knowledge that for now, there’s almost nothing we can do other than plan. Heavily enforced travel restrictions in China have been successful in stopping the spread of the virus, but they have made rescue operations virtually impossible.

In recent weeks we have succeeded in getting several women and a 5 year-old girl back into Vietnam (they’re all in quarantine now), but nobody can get into or out of Hunan.

Tragically, the very reason that Lan could call for help is the same reason she can not get to safety.

There are almost 30 women and girls in this exact situation right now: in contact with us but waiting, waiting. We are on the phone daily, giving assurances and constantly evaluating whether or not someone can be reached.

But Lan can’t. Not yet.

On Wednesday night, Lan was pushed beyond her limits. With rescue still possibly weeks away but with the epidemic starting to pass, her husband again took to beating her.

And she couldn’t take any more.

Lan rang the Blue Dragon rescue team with a request: Please say sorry to my family. Tell them I love them, but death would be better than one more day of this.

She couldn’t wait one more night. Lan had decided to take her own life.

When the phone fell silent, we were left helpless and shocked. COVID-19 is devastating millions across the world. But something about this is an even greater depth of injustice.

The next day, after countless unanswered calls and messages, Lan rang back.

Her voice was weak and low, but recognisable: she is still alive.

We’re all waiting for this hated epidemic to pass. For so many, it means lost jobs, financial ruin, being trapped in a foreign country, or maybe just inconvenience.

For Lan, the passing of COVID-19 is everything. Her life depends on it.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis. Right now we are in urgent need of funds. If you can donate any amount, please head to the website and send a gift. It will be sincerely appreciated.