In the world of nonprofits, “rescue work” has a mixed reputation.
Some people associate rescue work with reckless cowboys, kicking down doors and acting like tough guys… Reducing the people they rescue to mere victims. Damsels in distress.
Some see rescue operations as demeaning to those they are meant to assist. Stories abound of organisations “rescuing” women from situations they did not wish to be rescued from.
Meanwhile, some organisations use the word “rescue” to mean “assisted.” I once met a woman who claimed she had rescued 10,000 people from human trafficking. In fact, she had helped 10,000 people to live in safety; a highly admirable achievement, but an unusual use of the word “rescue”.
At Blue Dragon, we use the word in a literal sense: helping someone out of immediate danger. People in slavery call for help; we go looking for them; and when we find them, we get them out of danger and back to safety.
Our approach is non-confrontational. We don’t use force. We also don’t pay off the traffickers. (I must confess that I did this just once – the first time I encountered a victim of human trafficking. It didn’t work, and I would never do it again!)
Instead, we assist people to escape quietly and then we get them back to Vietnam or to another safe place. It’s not about heroics; it’s about getting the best result for the person who has called for help.
Doing it this way has meant that we could rescue over 1,300 people – so far.
Not one has ever been injured during a rescue operation; but plenty were harmed before we could get to them.
First the beatings
Ngoc’s experience of human trafficking began because of Covid.
Almost 30 years old, Ngoc lost her job in a restaurant when lockdowns gripped the world, as happened to many millions of people.
Ngoc thought that she was lucky when a friend messaged her about a job at a restaurant in Myanmar. It would be difficult to get there, but the salary she was promised was triple her old salary. Triple!
Ngoc and her friend made the long journey from Vietnam to northern Myanmar overland and as soon as they reached their destination, it was clear that Ngoc had been deceived.
Instead of going to a restaurant, she was taken to a brothel. Ngoc was terrified and refused to obey, resulting in a terrible, brutal beating. The brothel owners had paid traffickers to bring them Ngoc and now they owned her.
What eventually made Ngoc give in to them was not the beatings. It was the whispered warnings by others in the brothel that those who did not comply were sold elsewhere and never heard from again.
Then the shooting
While Ngoc went through her personal hell, Myanmar was tearing itself apart with armed conflict. A total lack of law and order in northern provinces meant that the girls being held there against their will, controlled by violent gangsters, had no protection at all.
Traffickers are so confident that their victims can’t escape the region, they sometimes let them outside to eat or get their hair done. One afternoon Ngoc was out on the street with other girls from the brothel when she heard a loud bang and fell to the road with a burning pain in her chest.
She had been shot.
Ngoc doesn’t know who shot her. It probably wasn’t a trafficker, because they would have made sure she was dead. Most likely it was a stray bullet from the armed conflict, or a case of mistaken identity.
The bullet punctured her lungs but she was still conscious when someone found her and dragged her back to the brothel.
Instead of being offered medical help, Ngoc was left to lie alone in a room. If she healed, she would be put back to work. If she didn’t heal: well, she would die.
What saved Ngoc in the end wasn’t a medical operation. It was a rescue operation.
Another woman Blue Dragon rescued around this time told us about Ngoc, so we sent a search party to find her. Once we knew where she was, we put our plan into motion and got her out of the brothel. No confrontation, no bribes. The bosses didn’t know anything had happened until Ngoc was miles away.
From there we got her to a hospital where she could be treated and stabilised. Then the team transported Ngoc to the capital city Yangon, worked to get her a passport and finally we flew her home to Vietnam.
Obviously, her story doesn’t end here.
Coping with the extreme trauma of being trafficked, beaten and shot is a daily struggle for Ngoc, even with Blue Dragon’s psychological support.
And then there’s the legal representation needed to deal with her trafficker; and the very basic need for financial support until she’s able to go back to work.
No doubt about it, rescue isn’t the cure for everything. But despite its bad reputation in some quarters, rescue work is a critical pillar of the fight against human trafficking.
An end in sight?
While Blue Dragon rescues, we continue to do all we can to prevent human trafficking from happening in the first place.
Focusing on regions with high rates of trafficking, we’re keeping kids in school; training up community members and officials to recognise trafficking and support victims; helping impoverished people to start farms and businesses; and developing community infrastructure, like toy libraries and student boarding houses.
Together, this “cluster” of activities is very effective at preventing human trafficking. So while we do all this, we’re learning and sharing our information with the government. Because we want this work to reach far beyond what we can do ourselves.
When there’s no more trafficking, we’ll gladly put an end to our rescue work. But for now, rescue operations must go hand in hand with our prevention efforts.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is determined to end human trafficking. We operate programs to prevent trafficking; we rescue people who fall victim to it; we support survivors in their recovery; and we work on law reform initiatives to strengthen government systems.