Will this ever get better?

Trinh feared she would never see her family again. Today, she is safely home. What can we do to end this crisis once and for all?

On Saturday morning, Trinh walked across the border back to Vietnam.

It was a long journey home for the 31-year-old. Almost a year ago, she was trafficked to Myanmar and sold into a brothel: a violent, terrifying place where she believed she would surely die.

Trinh had the courage and good fortune to one day be able to call for help. This set in motion Blue Dragon’s rescue operation which came to fruition on the weekend when she finally reached her homeland.

Trinh on the journey from Myanmar to Vietnam.

The path home was long and dangerous. Trinh and the rescue team crossed rivers and jungles, taking boats, motorbikes and buses to escape danger and make it home safely.

And Trinh’s rescue isn’t the only one we’ve been working on. As I write this, we have 8 more operations underway, bringing home a total of 17 more people.

As we complete them, new operations will begin immediately.

Calls for help

Blue Dragon is on track this year to rescue from slavery double the number of people we rescued in 2020. That’s a rapid and deeply worrying growth in the need for our services.

So we’ve just launched an emergency appeal, asking friends around the world to donate to this work.

The problem is: We did the same thing last year.

Does this mean we’ll be calling for urgent help like this every year?

I want to believe that the answer is ‘no’. Looking forward, there’s hope that this crisis in human trafficking will eventually peak and recede. I shared my thoughts on why I remain optimistic in this post just a few weeks ago.

But I also know that human trafficking isn’t a problem that will disappear any time soon. While Blue Dragon is working on a big picture initiative to reduce its incidence across Vietnam, we know that it will take a long-term effort to really make a difference.

And as a charity, the only way we can make anything happen is by asking for support from the global community.

All of which means that we may well be calling again for urgent help. Not because we want to, but because that’s the only way we can respond to the children, women and men in slavery who are desperate for someone to rescue them.

As we rescue, we’ll keep on working to strengthen communities so that people are safe from being trafficked in the first place.

We have to believe that one day this work will be over. When there’s no more need to rescue another person, Blue Dragon’s job will be done.

Thank you to all who have already donated. If you can, please consider a gift to Blue Dragon’s urgent appeal.

Good – for poor people

When it comes to charity, why do we give people in poverty services and assistance that we would never accept ourselves?

I was sitting in a café chatting to the owner, who asked about my work.

When I told her, she pulled out a plastic bottle stuffed with discarded plastic bags. With a huge smile on her face, she proudly told me that she was involved in a project to collect discarded plastic to build houses.

Fantastic idea! But her enthusiasm gave me pause when she continued: These houses will be good for poor people.

The idea of creatively using waste rather than sending it to landfill is one that I wholeheartedly support. But I have to question why such an initiative is suitable only for poor people. Why not for those who are considered middle class or wealthy?

Would the cafe owner live in such a house herself?

Last year, Blue Dragon built 100 houses for people in extreme poverty.

An architect and a builder designed the houses, with different styles for different regions of the country. In the northern mountains, we built houses to reflect the same style as the traditional houses around them. In central Vietnam, where flooding is common, houses were built up above flooding levels with escape hatches in the rooves to prevent drowning.

Before:

After:

While we had several designs for each family to choose from, they could modify their choice according to the number of residents and their specific needs.

In other words, every family got what they needed and wanted, rather than simply what Blue Dragon decided to give them. The result is that the 100 houses are all unique and match the local conditions. There’s no noticeable difference between the houses of the “poor people” and their neighbours.

And best of all, many families have told us that they now live in their “dream house.” By having input into every stage of the process, from design to construction, their new homes are truly their own.

Building houses, building dreams

Our work with young people follows the same principles.

When Blue Dragon was beginning 20 years ago, it was common to hear people say things like: Disadvantaged boys should learn motorcycle repair. Girls should learn sewing or cooking.

Those same limits were never imposed on children from wealthier families, who had the option to go to university or take on any job they were interested in. 

Of course, some Blue Dragon kids do want to study motorbike repair. Or cooking or sewing. And we make sure they have that option.

But we also offer scholarships for school leavers to study at a tertiary level. Right now we have about 160 kids in college and university.

The point is that every child should be able to find their strengths and achieve their own dream, not just do whatever is considered “good for poor people”.

Luong’s story exemplifies this.

When we found him, he was working in a sweatshop at the age of 14. Now he’s an outstanding pastry chef and chocolatier, working in five star resorts and teaching other young people his skills.

His story features this week on the Blue Dragon website.

In the same way, we’ve had girls and boys study abroad in jobs from engineering to medicine to teaching… And also some who want to work as farmers or stay at home and raise a family.

Whatever the dream, that’s what we’re here for.

Because what’s really “good for poor people” is the same as what’s good for all of us.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation works in Vietnam to end human trafficking.

Busting the boundaries

When Blue Dragon first started, many believed we were destined to fail. Had we listened to them, life for vulnerable children would be very different today.

​You might have heard that it’s Blue Dragon’s 20th birthday this year.

We don’t often stop to celebrate milestones or achievements in Blue Dragon. But this time, we’re taking the opportunity to reflect and celebrate what we’ve done over the years.

A question that often comes up is: what do we consider our biggest achievements?

There are certainly a few successes that stand out among the many. Some of them are very clear. Our 1500 rescues of people from slavery is a key accomplishment that we are acknowledging this year.

And some of them are less easy to define. One such achievement is what I want to write about today.

Although Blue Dragon is well-known now as an anti-trafficking organisation, in our early days we were focused solely on protecting street kids.

Hanoi shoeshine boy, 2004

It’s hard to remember and even harder for people to imagine what that work was like 20 years ago.

As a group of volunteers and friends who were doing our best to get kids off the streets and back to school, we had some good support. But we also had some extraordinary obstacles and opposition. 

I can’t recall how many times people told me that street kids weren’t worth helping. One foreign embassy worker said to me: “Those kids don’t want help. They just want money.”

And then there were those who didn’t believe that we had any chance of succeeding. One well-respected aid worker spat down the phone at me: “You’re not an expert. This work should be done by people who know what they’re doing.”

The problem was, there were no “experts” to be found other than those sitting in offices writing reports. Hanoi simply didn’t have programs for street children. There were some excellent vocational training programs, but they relied on the kids being a certain age and academic level, and interested in a particular course of study.

For kids who were under age or had dropped out of school early or were traumatised from abuse, there was basically nothing.

Girl selling food by the road, 2004

So the idea of “leaving it to the experts” essentially meant: do nothing. Let the kids try to survive on their own.

Today our work protecting street kids is not controversial at all. We have won awards for it, both locally and internationally.

We have a center and shelters for street kids and we routinely advocate for the needs of children we meet on the streets.

What was considered outrageous and risky 20 years ago is mainstream today.

And that is one of the successes that I’m most proud of. It’s also something that nobody really notices, because the shift has been so gradual.

The people who tried to discourage me all those years ago probably don’t even remember it that way. They may look back at that time as giving me practical advice which was helpful to my development.

I look today at the thousands of kids we’ve helped to get off the street, back to school and home with their families. Many are now in great jobs, have families of their own, and some even work or study in other countries.

The ripple effect in those children’s families and communities is immeasurable.

What would have become of these kids had I let the criticism and discouragement stop me? It’s unthinkable what life would be like for street kids today if Blue Dragon had never begun.

Rented room where street workers, including kids and adults, lived together, 2004

In every corner of the world, there’s an accepted way of doing things. A socially acceptable set of boundaries that everyone is expected to work within.

Those boundaries serve a purpose. They unify society and set cultural norms. At times, they keep us safe.

But they can also stop us from fighting for what’s right, like protecting street kids when nobody else will do it.

This was a difficult time in Blue Dragon’s history. As volunteers on the frontline, we were standing up for what we knew was right and persisting even when people thought we were wrong.

We defied expectations, pushed past conventional limits and spoke up for people who had no voice.

It wasn’t easy. But sometimes, that’s the only way to make real change.

Thanks for following the story of Blue Dragon. You’re invited to join me and my colleagues on Tuesday March 26 for a webinar about human trafficking, including how it impacts street kids. Sign up here.

Undercover at the noodle cart

Homeless with two daughters, Mrs Chi’s worries worsened when gangsters started harrassing her. An unexpected turn of events changed that.

Thanh h​ad a problem.

He’s an experienced social worker. Lovely with the kids. A real gentleman and intelligent with it.

He has worked with Blue Dragon for a couple of years and after taking a break, recently returned to work with us in a new location.

Blue Dragon is expanding, ramping up our work in a push to end human trafficking once and for all. This means growing our presence both in the cities and the villages, going wherever we are needed the most.

In urban settings, young people and families who are impoverished are at significant risk of being exploited. It’s not always called human trafficking by society, but that’s what it is. People are tricked into working with no salaries; lured into dangerous places like brothels and karaoke bars; preyed on for their vulnerability.

Thanh has been working with children and families on the city streets. His mission is simple: Help them find a way back into a home, or school, or dignified employment.

But one day he told me that he has an unexpected problem.

When he approaches young people or families on the street, he’s sometimes mistaken for an undercover policeman.

I would never think that Thanh looks like a policeman; he speaks with a lovely smile and carries himself in a relaxed, casual manner. But people who are homeless can easily become suspicious. It’s hard for them to believe that anybody would help them without it being a trick or demanding something in return.

“One time, as soon as they saw me coming, the children got up and ran in the other direction,” he told me.

Despite this challenge, Thanh continued. And along the way, he’s done some excellent work. He’s helped families to rent rooms so that their kids can go back to school and the parents can return to work. Families around the city have come to know and trust him, and greet him with joy when he appears.

Recently, Thanh shared that he had helped Mrs. Chi to turn her fortunes around.

Mrs. Chi has had a series of troubles, starting with her husband dying of Covid. Soon she was broke and homeless with two children under 5 years old, not seeing any way out of her situation.

Mrs. Chi didn’t want charity. She wanted a job. She wanted to earn her own money and care for her daughters without being constantly worried and without relying on anyone else. But of course, to do that, she needed someone to lend a helping hand to get her started.

So Thanh set her up with a room to rent and a cart that she can wheel around and sell noodles from. Her dream has been to have her own little business so that she can arrange her working hours around her children’s needs and earn enough money to be safe and independent.

Mrs Chi getting the noodle cart ready.

However, she had one more problem.

While going through tough times, she had taken out a loan from a black market loan shark. These gangsters are everywhere. They make it very easy to borrow, but very difficult to ever break free from their grip. Even though she had been repaying their exorbitant interest rates, they continued to harass and threaten her.

So Thanh offered to help out. He got their phone number from Mrs. Chi and rang them to have a chat.

His plan was to ask for time to repay the loan. After all, she was now starting to earn money, so why harass her and make her fearful?

But something rather unexpected happened.

The gangsters mistook Thanh for… a policeman.

They promptly hung up the phone. Disconnected.

And Mrs. Chi hasn’t heard from them since.

Now she’s selling her noodles in peace and rebuilding her life.

Thanh’s challenge turned very much to Mrs. Chi’s advantage.

Thanks for reading the Life Is A Long Story blog. If you want to understand the latest developments in human trafficking in Southeast Asia, join me on March 26 in this Blue Dragon webinar

Where are we now?

Human trafficking and slavery continue to take new forms, constantly staying a step ahead of attempts to keep people safe. Is there any light at the end of this tunnel?

It’s been a few months since I wrote my last post.

What’s changed since then? Nothing. And everything. All of it.

Blue Dragon’s rescues continue. Continue to grow in number, continue to grow in urgency. That’s not new.

But the numbers calling for help are new. In the second half of 2023, we rescued 7 times the number of people we rescued in the first half. Looking ahead to the coming months, those numbers are still growing.

Crossing a river during a rescue operation.

And the urgency of every call is beyond what we’ve seen before. Messages are coming to us along the lines of:

“Please help my sister, she is in Myanmar and the trafficker plans to take her kidneys.”

“I am desperate. All night I hear bombs and gunfire. I don’t want to keep living.”

“Send help, please! We are being tortured. They used an electric prod on me and now I cannot walk.”

Trafficking in all its forms is horrible, but these new levels of barbarism are shocking nonetheless.

So is there any hope at all?

When talking about human trafficking, I’m always careful of two things. First, I never exaggerate how bad things are. This includes sharing rumours or speculating. And second, I never give false hope when there’s really none to be had.

But despite all of these developments, I do believe there’s still hope. There’s light at the end of this tunnel.

Life is getting harder for the traffickers who are luring people into Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, where they are violently enslaved and forced to scam people online.

People are hearing about their tricks and are less likely to fall for them.

International pressure is causing some of these scam operations, which have enslaved over 200,000 people in south-east Asia alone, to close.

Police from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos have been pursuing the criminals behind the trafficking and scams, reportedly arresting thousands of people involved.

And rebel armies in northern Myanmar have sworn to shut the scams down as they take control of new territory.

Although the situation right now is worse than it’s ever been, we’re seeing signs that maybe, just maybe, the tide is starting to turn.

I hope I’m not speaking too soon. But it’s definitely too soon to give up hope.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking. 

Bad blogger

Time to make amends.

I’ve broken the rules!

I stopped blogging without making any comment or giving a reason. For this I must beg forgiveness!

No excuses, other than to say that 2023 has been a sometimes-difficult year and I found that the process of writing each week took more emotion and spirit than I had to share.

But that’s all part of life and I’ll soon be ready to start again.

To end 2023, allow me to post some links that will be of interest to friends who follow and support the great work of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation.

For a quick read, here are some highlights of the past year that are just too good not to share.

And if listening to podcasts is more your thing:

– I was interviewed recently by the fascinating Lorraine Nilon who calls herself a ‘spiritual explorer’, but her spirituality is very down-to-earth and we had the most wonderful conversation. You can listen to it here.

– Earlier in the year I spoke with Australian Member of Parliament Andrew Leigh, whose personal podcast explores “The Good Life.” And indeed it was a good chat. Tune in here.

– One final recommendation is my discussion with The Justice Dialogue, where we talked in depth about how Blue Dragon has adapted over the years to the constantly changing context of human trafficking. Absolutely worth listening to, in my unbiased opinion.

Despite a challening year, I am excited for 2024. It’s Blue Dragon’s 20th birthday and the Year of the Dragon in the lunar calendar. So I will most definitely be back to blogging in late January!

Friends near and far, thanks for being part of the story. I look forward to reconnecting in the Year of the Dragon.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking. 

All the small things

Aged 12, Tai could no longer go to school. Without a helping hand, he and his family would be in grave danger.

Skimming through Blue Dragon’s social media can be an eye-opening experience.

Our Twitter (yep I’m still calling it that) feed is a good example. You’ll see announcements about completed rescue operations; news of court decisions in trafficking cases; stories about kids in sports or at school; and photos of rural families being given livestock.

It all seems a little disconnected. How is all of this part of Blue Dragon’s mission to end human trafficking?

To explain, let me share a story about a boy we’ve recently started helping.

Tai

Tai lives in an ethnic minority community in central Vietnam. Their village is in a mountainous region that is stunningly beautiful but, outside the highly developed tourist areas, remains extremely poor.

He’s 13 years old now. A little over a year ago, both of his parents fell ill. With no savings or steady income, Tai’s family were soon trapped in deep poverty.

With his school almost 14km away from home, Tai had no way to get there and back each day. His parents weren’t well enough to take him on their motorbike and he couldn’t afford to board with a family closer to town.

So that was it. Aged 12, Tai was out of school. Not because he wanted to quit; not because his family doesn’t value education. Simply because his parents were unwell and he had no way to travel there alone.

When the new school year was starting in September, Blue Dragon heard about this and went to see how we could help.

A few things were immediately obvious. Tai’s parents need medical treatment to improve their health. They need extra food to supplement their meagre diet and extra funds each month to see them through this period of hardship. So we’ve made a plan to support them for the next 6 months and we’ll see if they still need help after that.

Getting Tai to school each day is another matter. Until his parents are well enough to take him, we’ll ask one of his neighbours to help and pay them a little to cover their expenses.

For the longer term, we’re talking with the local government about a plan to organise a bus for all of the kids in Tai’s area to safely get to and from school each day, paid for by the state budget. It looks like this will happen in the new year.

A visit to the stationery shop.

To really celebrate Tai going back to school, we didn’t just buy his school supplies and drop them off. We took him to the shop to have the pleasure of choosing his own stationery, backpack and books . We wanted him to be part of the experience and not just a beneficiary of our help.

The thread

With all of this support, Tai can continue his schooling after an absence of a year and his family is on the road to stability once again.

We all agree that it’s important for kids to go to school and we all want families to have the dignity of being financially independent. But helping Tai is also important for another reason.

In Vietnam, the people who are most at risk of being trafficked and sold are members of ethnic communities – like Tai’s family.

And his village is located in a region where child trafficking has, until very recently, been a serious problem. It took Blue Dragon 10 years of constant work to put the traffickers out of business and we need to continue working to make sure they stay away.

Keeping Tai, his family and his village free from human trafficking involves all of these ‘small’ actions together. Helping parents who are ill. Providing a monthly allowance through tough times. Enrolling kids in schools and making sure they have a great experience there.

That’s the thread that ties all of Blue Dragon’s work together. And it’s much more than random acts of kindness here and there.

Helping a child like Tai go to school is a wonderful thing to do. But on its own, that won’t keep him or his family safe from human traffickers. To do that, we need to look holistically at the family’s health and housing, and also at the community around them. Paying a neighbour to take Tai to school will be very helpful for him in the short term. Making sure there’s a school bus to take all of the children to school will be helpful for everyone in the long term.

Resilience is safety

So that’s why Blue Dragon’s social media shares such an array of stories. To end human trafficking, we need to make whole families and communities resilient.

It’s a process that takes time and the actual need varies from place to place. In Tai’s village, a school bus will be part of the solution. In another place, it might be a boarding facility at the school or a new road that’s needed.

Blue Dragon will keep rolling out these clusters of activities where they are needed… And while we do that, kids like Tai can get on with being children in peace and safety.

With 2023 coming to a close, Blue Dragon is asking our friends around the world to consider a donation toward this important work. If you can, please include us in your year-end plans with a gift of any amount. Thank you!

The trade in human brutality

Rescued after 7 months in horrifying slavery, Tra hoped her nightmare was over. But on returning home, tragic news awaited her.

For all of the many problems and controversies in our world, there’s one thing everyone can agree on. Human trafficking and slavery are abhorrent crimes that we must end.

Facts about these crimes can be overwhelming. Recent estimates say that 50 million people in our world are in slavery right now. That’s more people than at any other time in history.

But the data doesn’t inspire us to take action. It often has the opposite effect.

With a problem of that size, what can I possibly do that would make a difference?

And that’s where things go wrong. Where we are inclined to give up hope and quit before we even start.

In my last post, I raised the question of whether it’s worth rescuing 10 or 20 people each week, as Blue Dragon is doing, when there are hundreds of thousands of people still in slavery.

In some ways, this is a rhetorical question. We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t believe it worthwhile. But it’s still an important question to ask and reflect on.

Fortunately, readers of the blog share the same view. Yes, the human impact of rescuing even one person is worth it. Even better that Blue Dragon’s rescues add up to a bigger picture in our efforts to prevent human trafficking.

Since I wrote that post, we’ve brought home another 17 people from slavery.

Despite that success, a rescue doesn’t mean the end of the story. Far from it.

Not a happy ending

Tra’s story is one that hit all of us at Blue Dragon hard. When we set in motion an operation to rescue someone from slavery, we hope that their return home will be the start of their healing.

But Tra’s journey home ended with another terrible blow.

Tra is 20 years old. Early this year, she left her family home to work in a factory. All she wanted to do was earn some money to send home to her mother and father, who have always lived in deep poverty.

After some time in the factory, she was offered a job with a better salary and set out with some friends, hopeful for the future.

Tra and her friends were taken to Myanmar where they were forced to work as online scammers. Kept in captivity and in constant fear, Tra couldn’t imagine that anything could be worse.

And yet, worse was waiting. After a few months, her captors decided that she could earn more money for them in a brothel.

From the time she was trafficked to the time we rescued her, Tra was away from Vietnam for 7 months.

At the time she left home – happily thinking how lucky she was to have this opportunity – her parents were both fine and shared in her optimism for the future.

But three weeks before Tra finally returned home, her mother died of illness.

When Tra reached home, her father was waiting alone to greet his daughter with tears. Joy for their reunion, inconsolable pain for their loss.

Tra returns home to be met by her father.

You can read more of Tra’s story in this Blue Dragon Facebook post.

Personal toll

Any person who survives the experience of human trafficking needs support to recover and to deal with their trauma.

Coming home from slavery to news that a loved one has died adds a whole new depth to suffering.

And this is yet another reason why we must do everything we can to end human trafficking. No person should suffer what Tra has endured. We do not have to accept that this is a part of the human experience.

When we look up from the overwhelming size of the problem, we can see the personal toll that human trafficking takes.

And we know that we must keep going, keep fighting this trade in human brutality until it finally becomes a relic of history.

It’s possible, but only if we come together as a global community and give it all we’ve got.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking. We look forward to the day that there is no need to rescue anybody else.

Scratching the surface

Human trafficking has reached new levels of brutality and is harming more people than ever before. Is there really any chance we can stop it?

Last week, Blue Dragon rescued 17 people from slavery.

Then on the weekend we rescued three more.

Each person has their own story, their own set of unfortunate circumstances as to how they came to be targeted by human traffickers.

All are Vietnamese people and we rescued them from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. You can read here about how we conduct our rescue operations.

To bring home 20 people in the course of a week is an excellent outcome of our work. And we have rescue operations underway right now which will bring more more people home in the coming weeks.

Five people, rescued from slavery, on the journey back to Vietnam.

But there’s a problem.

With the recent advent of ‘scam centres’ and the explosion of illegal casinos and brothels in northern Myanmar, human trafficking and slavery in the region is at massive levels. Probably higher than it’s ever been.

I’ve seen recent estimates of 100,000 people in slavery in Cambodian scam centres and another 150,000 people in Myanmar.

Against that background, is the rescue of 20 people something to celebrate?

The world to me

Of course, to each of the 20 people we rescued last week, Blue Dragon has changed the world.

A week ago, each was terrified. They had been deceived by people they trusted. Sold against their will. They knew that they might never see their families again.

Coming home after an experience like that brings a sense of relief and joy that no words can describe.

So although our week’s rescue operations barely scratch the surface of the 250,000 or more people who are in slavery right now, for those 20 people we’ve changed the world.

And for our work to be truly effective, we will now follow up with help to recover and rebuild: legal representation, psychological counseling, financial assistance and education.

Either / Or

On the human level, Blue Dragon’s rescue operations are of huge significance in people’s lives.

And in conducting them, we are not trapping ourselves into a false dichotomy of either rescuing people or preventing human trafficking.

We’re doing both.

Across Vietnam, Blue Dragon works in villages and cities to assist people who we can see are at high risk of being trafficked.

How do we know who is vulnerable to this crime? Well, we’ve rescued about 1,400 people so far, so we know a lot about how trafficking happens. We’ve even conducted research on the issue and published our findings.

Keeping people safe from trafficking involves a multi-pronged approach based on the local needs.

Keeping kids in school is important, but you have to make sure the schools have good facilities and resources so that kids will stay.

Families need safe houses and jobs. Parents who are in debt, or have a disability, or are raising their children alone, may require special assistance.

And communities need local leaders who understand and recognise human trafficking – and know what to do if they suspect it has happened.

All of this, and more, prevents trafficking when efforts are coordinated and highly targeted to a community’s specific circumstances.

While we rescue, Blue Dragon is also leading these efforts and documenting what we learn along the way.

The bigger question

Rescue must remain an important part of anti-trafficking efforts. After all, even if human trafficking was stopped today, there are still 250,000 people in one type of slavery in just two countries.

Blue Dragon’s rescues of 20 people one week and 10 people another week will never be enough to set free every person in slavery. We know that. But we’re certainly doing everything in our power to help those we can.

And while we do that, we’re continuing to work on the much bigger question of how to stop human trafficking before it even happens.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is on a mission to end human trafficking. 

Justice to the very end

7 young men endured the horrors of human trafficking in a scam compound. In court, their case has received national attention for a very special reason.

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.

Blue Dragon represented the 7 victims in their original court case.

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 being livestreamed to every court house in Vietnam.

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.