Vin was trembling as he stood, head bowed and hands clasped.
He had never been in a court room before today. He’d never even had trouble with the police.
As the judge read out his sentence – 11 years in prison – Vin still couldn’t believe that this was really happening.
And now it was official: he was a human trafficker. He had tricked a girl from a nearby village into taking a ride on his motorbike and handed her to a gang waiting on the border between Vietnam and China.
While he was doing this, he knew deep down it was wrong – but something drove him to do it anyway.
Vin’s life was always hard as a child and teenager. He grew up in a H’mong village and quit school before he was 10 so that he could work full time in the fields. Some months, there just wasn’t enough to eat, so he would travel away with his father and find jobs on construction sites in the towns and cities.
Being out in the world was always a humiliating experience. People laughed at his manners and his clothes. He was embarrassed that he couldn’t speak much Kinh, the mainstream Vietnamese language, like the other workers. Even going to shops to buy supplies was difficult: he could hardly read or write and nothing was familiar.
When he met a wealthy H’mong woman and her Chinese husband one day, everything changed. He was offered a chance to make some easy money – for the first time in his life.
All he had to do was bring them a Vietnamese girl who they would take to China, where she would marry and have children.
She might not like it at first, they told Vin, because she will want to stay in Vietnam. But her life will be much better in China; she won’t be poor any more and her children will go to school. She’ll be glad you did this.
And the sum of money on offer was almost unbelievable. If he could bring a pretty girl aged under 18, he would receive 30 million VND – over $1,300! He couldn’t earn that much in a year, let alone for one day’s work.
Still he knew it was wrong, so he assured himself that this was his only way out of poverty. And why shouldn’t he have that chance? It wasn’t his fault that he was born into poverty. It wasn’t his fault that people laughed at him and joked about how stupid he was.
With this money, he could buy a new motorbike. Maybe one of the local girls would finally want to marry him! This would change his life.
Vin’s story is common among people who traffic others. In the end, his poverty and disadvantage were similar to that of the young woman he targeted and enslaved. They were alike in so many ways, except that he sought to profit from her misery.
Last week, Blue Dragon released an analysis of the profiles of human traffickers. You can find the full report here, and an article in the South China Morning Post that neatly explains the research here. We found that cases like Vin’s are extremely common: most people who end up in court for trafficking are first time offenders from backgrounds of poverty and with low levels of education.
That doesn’t excuse Vin. His victim spent a terrifying 3 months in slavery before Blue Dragon found and rescued her. What he did was unequivocally wrong.
Vin did something monstrous – but that doesn’t make him a monster. Standing there in court, he knew he deserved this punishment. He saw himself as a failure.
And yet, the findings of our research give us reason to hope.
If people like Vin are becoming traffickers because of their low education and poverty, we may be able to intervene. Programs to combat trafficking are often designed to help people who are vulnerable to being trafficked – like scholarships to keep girls in school.
It makes sense to consider that extending those programs to also keep potential traffickers in school, or to help them find legitimate jobs, would reduce human trafficking even further.
Sending Vin to prison is a just and fair decision by the court. But if only we could step in to help people like Vin and his family to find a better path, we would be preventing a human tragedy before it even happens.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.
Please note that some details of this story are changed for legal and privacy reasons.