They just wanted the same things that all of us want.
Opportunity. Dignity. A chance to get ahead in life.
The seven young men grew up in Gia Lai province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. They had always known poverty and hardship; and as members of an ethnic community, their Kinh language skills (what we usually refer to as ‘Vietnamese’) were quite basic.
All of this meant that, even though they wanted to work hard and earn money for their families, they had almost no chance.
Until one day, their fortunes turned.
The friends came across a social media post offering jobs with a monthly salary higher than they’d ever hoped for. They contacted the employer immediately and once they knew they’d been accepted, they set off to start a new chapter in their lives.
A common story
If you’re familiar with human trafficking, you’ll recognise immediately the red flags in their story. Vietnam’s 13 million ethnic community members are by far the most vulnerable to being trafficked. And great job offers online are often traps – as this one was.
But when you’re living in poverty… And when you don’t have anyone to advise you on how to find a steady, safe job… And when your language skills are limited… It’s so easy to fall victim to a scam.
And so these seven friends landed in trouble. Their traffickers, two Vietnamese men, arranged to sell them into a forced online scamming centre in Cambodia – the type of place that uses slaves to trick people around the world to send money.
Five of the seven men were smuggled through, sold, and forced into the brutal world of slavery. Two more men were fortunately stopped at the border, after one of their captive friends warned them of the trap.
Freedom and justice
After some months, the families of the five young men found a way to help them escape and they returned home. Vietnamese authorities were able to arrest their two traffickers, and in June this year they went to court.
Blue Dragon represented the victims at the hearing and the traffickers received very stiff penalties: 28 and 29 years’ imprisonment each. The maximum penalty is 30 years.
On Friday, however, their case was back in court. The traffickers lodged an appeal, claiming the sentences were too harsh. So a superior court heard their claim and once again Blue Dragon was there to protect the rights of the victims.
All of this is fairly standard; we are often in court representing people we’ve rescued or who escaped from slavery.
But one thing about the case was far from normal. As the appeal was presented and the judges deliberated, over 1,000 courts around Vietnam were watching.
Under the spotlight
In a first of its kind, the case was broadcast to Vietnam’s entire judicial system. Every court official, prosecutor and judge around the country watched the proceedings from beginning to end.
The appeal resulted in a reduction of their sentences, down to 23 and 24 years each. The traffickers acknowledged their guilt but argued for leniency due to their age (both are in their 20s) and because both had also been victims of trafficking themselves.
But apart from the sentencing, the broader impact was a learning experience that will strengthen Vietnam’s judiciary.
The way I summarise these stories for my blog, human trafficking cases may sound simple – ‘open and shut’. Under the spotlight of the legal system, they are much more complex and nuanced. And with every case unique, prosecutors and judges often hear cases that are totally new to them.
Now there isn’t a court official in the country who hasn’t observed a human trafficking case. As a student of pioneering educational psychologist John Sweller, I understand how powerful it is to learn from a ‘worked example‘. And that’s what this initiative has done. It’s demonstrated the use of evidence, the reasoning and the deliberations that cases of human trafficking require.
For Vietnam’s judicial system, this is a major development. There’s certainly more to be done, but clearly the judiciary is highly motivated.
A ‘good news’ ending
In the world of human trafficking, there are too few ‘good news’ stories.
These seven young men went through a terrifying time, but now can be confident that justice has been served. While the sentences have been reduced, the traffickers’ punishment is still substantial. They won’t be causing any more harm.
And for Vietnam, the innovative use of this case to educate the entire judicial system is an admirable step.
The harm that traffickers cause can never be undone. An ending like this is the best we can hope for: justice, freedom, and a society that’s able to stand up against human trafficking.
Blue Dragon is on a mission to end human trafficking. Find out more here: bluedragon.org/our-work.