Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Test Case

The sex trafficking and sexual assault of boys in Vietnam are issues that have been snowballing over the past 2 years. Blue Dragon has been coming across new cases every week; some weeks, we meet 3 or 4 boys who have been abused. Their stories are painful and heartbreaking, without exception.

This week, a story in the local media has garnered significant attention: a 14 year old deaf and intellectually impaired boy in Nghe An province (north-central Vietnam) was tortured and brutally raped by a neighbour. Identified only as "T," the boy is in a state of shock and pain; doctors and police alike have been unable to understand what has happened and their own limited experience of such cases means they don't know where to start.

The accused rapist is on the run, and T is in hospital being treated.  His parents are desperately poor and aren't even sure how they will pay the hospital bill. The Vietnamese media, not being very sensitive to privacy concerns, have published multiple stories featuring photos of the boy and his bloody injuries. (In case you want to know more about the story, the article with the least-intrusive image is here. It's in Vietnamese, but online translations can give you the general idea).

In short: T is in a desperate situation and his family is deeply distraught.  Their world has come crashing down around them.

Seeing how difficult this case is, and having experience of working with abused boys, Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer, Mr Van, has today traveled to Nghe An to meet the family and talk with the police and doctors about the case. This afternoon, we have agreed to represent T in court, once the rapist is caught, and we are working with the police to lay a charge of sexual assault, even though the law is unclear on this point. (Vietnamese law doesn't clearly recognise that males can be the victims of sexual assault; so in this case the offender can be charged with assault, but not rape).

While our hope is to have the rapist charged as such - and not only for the violent physical assault he committed - we also need to get this family some material support. Their situation is dire.

By getting involved like this, we're taking a step into the unknown. We can't even be sure the accused offender will be caught, but we have to give it our best. T and his family need, and deserve, a helping hand.

It's equally important that the police in this case can see the bigger picture here: any person who rapes a child cannot be allowed to get away with it, whether the victim is a boy or a girl. 

In some ways, this is a test case to make sure an abused boy can be afforded full legal protection. But it's also a real case about a kid who has had his life messed up and is in desperate need.

And so I'm taking the unusual step in my blog of asking for help. We're estimating that about $3000US will be needed for immediate medical help, for the costs of legal representation, and for some decent medium-term support for T once he gets through this ordeal.

If this is something you can help with, head over to the Blue Dragon website and make a donation - any amount will make a difference.

If you're using PayPal, choose "Justice for 'T' Campaign" in the drop down list. If you're donating by bank transfer or through AFAP (for Australians who would like tax deductibility), please send an email to chi@bdcf.org so that our staff member, Ms Chi, knows your donation is for T.


I'll post updates in coming days and weeks about how T is faring, and how the legal case progresses. There are just too many injustices in our world. This is one that I hope we can do something about.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fairytale ending

Could it be true?

Could we really have such a fairytale ending?

In late 2005, Blue Dragon met a 13 year old boy selling flowers on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. That boy, Ngoc, had been trafficked by gang of women who forced him to work through the night, taking everything he earned and beating him if he failed to sell enough.

Ngoc was the first victim of trafficking we had ever met, and so became the first trafficking victim we rescued.

As we investigated how Ngoc had been trafficked, we discovered an extensive problem of child trafficking for labour throughout the province of Hue in central Vietnam. Several months later, we set out on our first "rescue mission" to bring home a group of children trafficked by that same gang.

Among the group was one young girl named Bich Ngoc - the first girl we rescued from trafficking.

Yesterday, with a day of noisy parties in a village in central Vietnam, Ngoc and Bich Ngoc became husband and wife. The first boy we ever rescued from trafficking and the first girl we ever rescued from trafficking are now a family.


Both Ngoc and Bich Ngoc work in a restaurant in Hanoi; they are a fine young couple, supporting their families back home in the countryside, as is the culture, while also saving for their future lives together.

If ever we need evidence that rescuing trafficked children has a long term impact, surely this is it. Even I would never have dreamt of such a happy ending.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The danger in staying safe

In recent months I have been writing about the incredible dangers that Hanoi's street kids face: in particular, the danger of being trafficked and sexually exploited.

So far this week, Blue Dragon's Street Outreach team has met 3 new homeless boys. Two have already been sexually abused, and are now in our care.

The third has managed to avoid the traffickers and pedophiles by living on a bridge, in a hiding spot so dangerous that even our Outreach staff were afraid when they went to see... And given the dangers that our Outreach staff routinely face, that really says something.

Below are some pictures to tell the story better than words can.

This first photo is a view over the side of the bridge, looking down at the entrance to the hiding spot, about 8 metres above the river. 


And this is a shot taken inside the 'living quarters' where 3 or 4 homeless kids have been living.


To escape the dangers on the streets, the kids are hiding in places that put their lives at very great risk. This is a terrible situation, and one that we cannot sit back and accept.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An arrest and a rescue

"Bin" and "Thay" are teen girls, not quite 15 years old; and yet already have been through a hell most of us will never know.

Each was taken separately. Although they are both from Ha Giang province in northern Vietnam, they didn't know each other before they met in the most horrible of circumstances: a brothel in China.

Their trafficker was a woman (pictured), a member of a gang that routinely traffics underage Vietnamese girls to China and sells them for sex. The trafficker used the same tricks to get both Bin and Thay across the border.

The trafficker writes out her confession in a police station. 

The girls are from outlying districts of the province, and so were heading in to the main township to prepare for the new school year. The trafficker met them at the bus station, showered them with kindness and took them for a meal. Finally, she called on a "relative" - another trafficker - to go and buy them some new clothes... and instead of heading toward town, they crossed into China and were handed over to more gang members.

What happened to them next is deeply troubling.

Bin's "virginity" was sold several times; she was stitched back up and re-sold after each rape. She was then sold to the brothel. Altogether, Bin was in the hands of the traffickers for 12 days.

Thay was taken first to a distant district in China where she was handed over to a brothel; but Chinese police came close to finding her and so she was moved back closer to Vietnam, where she ended up in the same place as Bin. Thay lived through 25 days of this hell.

Both girls were rescued by Chinese police on Sunday night, acting on information sent by the Vietnamese police. They are now back at home safely with their families.

"Bin" and "Thay" back in Vietnam, on their way to make statements to police. 

This trafficking ring is one that Blue Dragon has encountered before. Earlier this year, we were involved in the repatriation of 2 teen girls who jumped out of a window to escape a brothel. While the girls made it home OK, their traffickers have been evading police - until now.

Over the weekend, we had a call from the Ha Giang police informing us that the ring was back and was about to traffic some new victims. Our team headed straight up to the remote province to join in the search for the traffickers; it was a long trip but we found the woman in the early hours of Sunday morning. Once in the police station, she confessed everything and gave up details of where Bin and Thay were, enabling the Chinese police to bring them home and arrest the brothel owners.

Since then, 2 other ring members were caught and 2 more are on the run. They don't have much time left: they'll be caught for sure.

Later this year we will represent Thay and Bin in court, when their traffickers finally face trial. Seeing justice done is an important part of the healing process, and both Bin and Thay will need an awful lot of healing in the weeks and months ahead.
 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The ghost and the gang

In the past month, Blue Dragon's Legal Advocacy team has represented two children in court. Although they were both cases of sexual abuse, they were completely separate matters.

The first case went to court in July. A 44 year old man, Lan, was sentenced to 4 years in prison for abusing underage boys. He was caught back in March, when my team had information about Lan being in a hotel with a 13 year old boy, "Nam." We called the police, who raided the hotel and caught the man and his pimp, who will go to court in a separate trial soon.

Blue Dragon had known of Lan for over a year; he was a con artist, posing as a fortune teller while traveling around Vietnam with at least 3 boys by his side at all times. Although he kept a steady group of boys, he also picked up new boys along the way - homeless kids or children living in extreme poverty - to abuse them for a night and then throw them out.

Lan moved from hotel to hotel continuously, using fake ID cards to avoid capture, and the March raid on his hotel room was the first time we had ever laid eyes on him. Despite knowing 7 of his victims, Lan had made himself almost impossible to find. Among our staff, we nicknamed him "The Ghost," because every time we came close to locating him, he seemed to vanish. But not this time.

The second case went to court today. The accused were a gang of youths who had entrapped and raped a 13 year old girl, "Hien," after finding her homeless and penniless at one of Hanoi's lakes.

Blue Dragon met Hien on the street the day after she had been attacked and took her straight to the police. The gang was known to us and they were easy to identify and catch. The shock, though, was that 2 of the offenders were children themselves; and one of them, arguably the ringleader, was a 13 year old girl. These 2 kids are too young to even be charged, and yet both are notorious in the area for theft, dealing drugs, and a range of petty crimes.

The convictions for the gang members varied considerably. While the 2 children will be sent to reform school for 2 years (as they are now both aged over 14), one of the young men was sentenced to 18 years in prison. That's how serious the crime was.

 The gang in court: Wednesday August 20, 2014

Protecting, sheltering, and defending Vietnam's children is a part of Blue Dragon's work that has grown over time. Not only do we deal with many more cases now than just a few years ago, but the cases are far more serious in nature. Often they are very dark.

Nam and Hien have both been through incredibly traumatic experiences, and the court cases were stressful times for them both. But for what it's worth, they have had justice: their abusers have been detained and sentenced.

As I wrote last week, there's no doubt that Vietnamese society is under pressure and that children are feeling it the most. We have no choice but to hope that things can, and will, get better.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Something has to change

Vinh* is 14 years old. He is homeless, sleeping in one of Hanoi's many supposedly-outlawed 24 hour internet cafes. He plays computer games all day, and when he runs out of money he contacts a pimp who calls himself "Aunty" and makes money from trafficking underage boys.

Most of the "buyers" are Vietnamese men, although several foreigners are involved and don't appear to fear getting caught.

Vietnam prides itself on its concern for children and yet seems unable to offer protection to boys like Vinh. Earlier this year he was detained and sent to a Protection Centre, which kept him from danger for some months; but when he was released at the end of July, he was simply shown to the front gate, given a few dollars, and left to find his own way from there. Vinh returned to Hanoi and walked  straight back in the arms of the pimps and traffickers.

While international aid agencies turn away from Vietnam, declaring it a Middle Income country no longer in need of assistance, social problems like this are only just beginning. Vietnam is at a stage of development at which its economic growth has been massively impressive, but the consequences of rapid change are starting to be felt. Blue Dragon staff see the effects on young people daily: and often, what we see is frightening.

Teenage girls have formed gangs that live in hotels, funding elaborate lifestyles by selling methamphethamines. Fifteen and 16 year old boys go out at night breaking into houses, stealing iphones and motorbikes, then celebrate by spending big on prostitutes, online games, and drugs.

And Vinh is not alone in his life of selling sex; he is just one of a network of over 20 boys known to Blue Dragon, all aged under 17, who meet men on Facebook or at one of several known locations to earn $5 - $15 a night.

This isn't acceptable in any society; but the pace of development in Vietnam has been so fast, and often the benefits have been so unequally distributed, that social decay has been unavoidable.

Repairing the damage is going to be incredibly difficult - but not impossible. Vietnam's economic miracle now needs to be matched with a social miracle. Society cannot fail Vinh by leaving him to the predators; something has to change, and it must change soon.


 * Name changed to protect his identity. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Graduating


When Blue Dragon was just beginning, our focus was on getting street kids and homeless children into safe homes and schools. And while that's still a large part of what we do, along the way something else has happened: those kids have grown up and many have set their sights on tertiary studies and careers.

This month, 12 Blue Dragon kids are graduating from university and college. Every other day, one of them turns up at Dragon House, an envelope of results in hand, to proudly tell us that they've finished.

To help the kids through their studies, Blue Dragon offers scholarships, which are part loans and part grants. The loans are interest free and repayable over several years; we've tried to find the delicate balance of making the scholarship program sustainable without adding an unbearable burden on the students.

We've only been operating the loan scheme for a couple of years, but already the kids' commitment to repaying their loans is remarkable. Just a few weeks ago, Chinh (pictured below) graduated from her law degree and came to repay her loan immediately, from savings at her part time job. What makes this even more remarkable is that Chinh is blind.



Another recent graduate is Minh, pictured in the black shirt. This photo was taken in 2005 at a Blue Dragon United soccer game; at the time, Minh was one of our youngest (and smallest!) players.

(Click here to learn about Blue Dragon United).



Minh's huge smile belied a very difficult life, but after coming into contact with Blue Dragon through the weekly soccer games, things started to turn around. We gave him and his mother all the help they needed to get Minh through school; and now, 9 years later, Minh has just graduated with a degree in Tourism. He's worked hard to get this far, and with the right support along the way he's achieved some great results. Now he can't wait to find his first job and start leading tours through Vietnam!

In many ways, Chinh and Minh are just regular kids: they're university graduates who have done their best and set their hopes high. Their personal hardships, however, have been much greater than most have to bear, making their success even more inspiring.

Vietnam, and our world, needs more people like them.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

And NOW look what he's made!

Back in 2009, I posted a photo of a boy named Than with his beautiful artwork at a Children's Home in central Vietnam:


(... and the original link is here).

Than is 21 years old now, and he's graduated from decorating the walls of the Home to studying at Art College. Even though he's still a student (one more year to go!), he already has people lining up to buy his work.

It's been a long hard road, and Than has had a lot of help along the way; but he's worked hard and made the very best of every opportunity. Truly an inspiring young man!






Thursday, July 31, 2014

This ain't no Vocational Training program...

This morning, Blue Dragon has rescued 4 children from garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City: 3 boys and 1 girl. All are aged 13 and 14, and all are from rural villages in central Vietnam.

Before the day is out, we hope to find at least one more child whose family has asked us to bring her home.

The pictures below have been caught on a phone-camera; not high quality, but they give you the idea of where these kids have been living and working.


 

I'm commonly asked how and why parents let their kids go with these traffickers. Are the families profiting from this? Are they lousy parents, selling their children?

In short: No. They're very rarely bad parents. Instead, they're desperate parents with very few resources and low education who are deceived by the false promises the traffickers make. When they realise they've been tricked, they want nothing other than to have their children safely back at home.

The most common lie that the traffickers tell is that they have Vocational Training programs; the kids can go to the big city in the south, learn to be tailors, and make a great income in just a few years! The photos tell a very different story. This is slavery, pure and simple.

A 13 year old girl leaving a factory today 
with Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer


Blue Dragon has been getting kids out of these factories since 2006. They're small, home-based factories scattered all around the industrial suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City. Once the kids are safe, we report to the police and let them decide how to deal with the factories. But we don't want to be doing this work forever; we hope that our constant raids and the attention of Vietnamese media will be enough to get the factory owners to change their minds about using child slaves, and there's already some evidence that the tide is turning. We sure hope so.