Friday, January 30, 2015

News roundup: January 2015

The first in an occasional roundup of news stories about the issues impacting kids in Vietnam and around the world

- Central Vietnam is being targeted by human traffickers

- Vietnamese police arrest two men for selling child abuse images online (Vietnamese only)

- The Australian government considers allowing adoptions from Vietnam; not everyone thinks it's a good idea

- The Guardian explores child labour in global supply chains

- A Chinese court gives the death sentence to the leader of a Vietnam-China child trafficking ring

- Ten lessons from a discussion on ending child labour

- And a discussion from the US in HuffPo on why 'child prostitution' is a misnomer

Sunday, January 25, 2015


My stories on this blog and on the Blue Dragon Facebook are often about the journeys taken by Vietnamese youth, particularly trafficked children returning home and runaway boys being reunited with families.

Indeed, last week saw the Blue Dragon team bringing 7 teenage girls back from China, where they had been sold into the sex industry, and accompanying a 14 year old boy home to his family in the countryside after he had run away and spent several nights on the streets of Hanoi.

Since we began back in 2003, we've walked with Vietnamese kids on thousands of journeys. Some have been simple: re-enrolling in school or a trip to a doctor. Others have been long and complex journeys: escaping from systemic abuse or facing terrifying ordeals. And not all journeys end well.

During these last 2 years, many of our journeys have been dark and painful. We are receiving ever more calls for help from Vietnamese girls who have been deceived by apparent friends, employers, and lovers, only to be sold into brothels or forced marriages in China. The psychological damage is inevitably deep and lasting; and too often the girls suffer serious physical harm as well.

And in Hanoi, where Blue Dragon's HQ and children's centre is based, too much of our work is in healing boys who have been entrapped in pedophile rings which prey upon homeless children.

All of these journeys have been filled with sorrow and despair.

We continue this work, however, believing that we can have an impact. When we rescue a girl from a Chinese brothel, we are changing her life forever and also shutting down an entire trafficking ring which could otherwise traffic another 5, 10, 50 girls.

Our work with boys in Hanoi is also aiming toward lasting change. Vietnamese law currently does not acknowledge that males can be victims of sexual abuse, and so the pedophiles feel that they are safe in their exploitation. We plan to turn that around: there are loopholes under which they can be arrested, and we are looking at how this law can be revised to outlaw the abuse of boys.

In the coming Year of the Goat, I know that many difficult journeys lay ahead. As Vietnam develops, its youth face increasingly complex social issues, and the vulnerability of the poor seems to be spiraling out of control. The exploitation that we see is growing worse every year, both in nature and in incidence.

But we will continue, because giving up is not an option. Every setback is only a lesson to prepare us for the next step of the journey.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Whatever happened to the Blue Dragon blog..?

It's been a month since I have been active on my blog. Time to admit that I have been very slack!

There's been a lot happening here in Vietnam over Christmas and new year, with rescues and police operations as well as the less visible but equally important growth among the Blue Dragon kids day by day. Much of our work in recent months has been focused on intervening in crises of all kinds: from kids being attacked on the streets to pedophiles luring children away from us over Facebook to girls being sold into brothels in China.

My lack of writing doesn't reflect a lack of action - quite the reverse! But I need to start getting literate again. No excuses!

This year my blog will take on a new shape, but I am still planning things out. For now: I will get back to writing each Monday, and continuing to shares stories from the streets of Vietnam. Sign up to get new posts delivered straight to your email!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A mother's love

Nga was glad to start life over. Her husband had been a violent alcoholic, and she knew that leaving him behind and taking their young children away to live with her mother was the only way to keep them safe.

Being a single mother in rural Vietnam is never easy: there are always suspicious eyes and gossiping tongues, but Nga was determined to ignore them all. With help from her mother, she set up a tea stall and began to make some money - not very much, but the work kept her busy and she made just enough to keep the children in school. Nga started to feel that maybe things were going to be OK.

And then something wonderful happened: she made a friend! Another woman in the town, Giang, started frequenting her tea stall, showing simple kindness from day to day and making Nga confident in herself. Giang would even look after her children when Nga was busy.

Some months later, when Giang invited Nga to travel with her to the border of China on business, Nga had no reason to be concerned. Giang's sister offered to look after Nga's children for the day, and Giang was able to pay a little in return for Nga helping carrying some goods home. It was all very straightforward and natural.

What happened, though, was anything but what Nga expected. The 2 women traveled into the hills bordering China, where 2 men met them - evidently they were friends of Giang. Still everything seemed fine, but when Nga began to feel uncomfortable and request that they start heading back to the Vietnamese side of the border, her worst nightmare came true. Giang had sold her for $2000 to these men, and there was no chance now that she could go home. Giang turned back to Vietnam, and Nga was alone with these strangers in a terrifying situation.

Nga put up a fight: she had children to get back to. She could not be taken so easily! Even in this sudden surge of fear, her first thought was for her sons.

The men dragged her to a stream and told her that she had three choices. They could drown her, here and now, and leave her body in the stream. Or she could go to work in a brothel to pay off the debt. Or she could be sold as a wife to a Chinese man.

Nga continued to fight: she chose none. She only wanted to get home to her children.

Realising they were in for a battle, the men took Nga deeper into China and locked her into a home. For two weeks, they tortured and terrified her. So far Nga has still not disclosed all that happened in that house during this time; but for all the men put her through, she continued to resist.

Finally the men realised how to make this incredibly strong woman bend to her will: they threatened her children.

Nga's youngest child was still in the care of Giang, back in Vietnam. Giang had kept the little boy, telling Nga's mother that Nga was off on business and would be back soon.

After 2 weeks of torture, the men called Giang and put Nga's son on the phone.They told her plainly: make your choice, or your son dies.

Nga agreed to be sold as a bride.

The men took Nga in a car, traveling over 2000km, until they reached their destination and sold Nga for $12,000 to a Chinese man who believed he was paying a dowry to a Vietnamese woman who wanted to move to China. For a few weeks, Nga complied with everything expected of her - but secretly planned and plotted her escape.

Her chance came when she met a Chinese woman who spoke some Vietnamese. Nga befriended the woman, and finally borrowed her phone to make a call home.

Once Nga had made that call, word reached us at Blue Dragon and within 2 weeks we put in place a rescue operation. Nga is home now, and the 5 key people involved in this trafficking ring are all in custody.

Most of the people we rescue are children and teens; we have rarely been involved in the rescue of a parent. However, Nga's traffickers were also trading in young people; and regardless of her age, Nga was in a desperate situation and needed help.

I am convinced that these rescues are worthwhile: they are difficult and dangerous, but the impact is enormous. First, a single life is changed beyond any words can express. If not for the Blue Dragon rescue team, Nga would still be a servant bride in China, and her children and her mother would have no idea where she was or why she failed to come home.

And second, it is not only Nga who has been rescued. With the entire trafficking ring disabled, nobody can estimate how many women and girls are now safe who otherwise would have fallen victim to their tricks.

What worries, me, though, is that these traffickers are well financed and highly motivated. Nga was sold for $2,000 and then, following 2 weeks of torture, the ring that bought her made a 500% profit.

Putting these guys out of business will never be easy. In this case, it was a mother's love that saved the day. Nga's determination to get home and protect her children was more powerful than the violence used against her; and no amount of money was going to stand in her way.

Because of that love, Nga's story can have a happy ending. I think her kids must be the luckiest children in the world, to have a mother who loves them so fiercely.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Enslaved in a gold mine

The Blue Dragon Rescue team has had an extraordinary day.

For 2 months, we have been hearing rumours of ethnic minority children being trafficked to an illegal gold mine in a mountainous part of Vietnam. The police have been investigating, but information has been slow to come: the stories we heard were of a camp remote and inaccessible, and with young people being held as slaves in the most horrendous conditions, but nobody knew the exact location.

On Friday afternoon, Vietnamese police and the Blue Dragon team found the site after a day of trekking through untouched wilderness. The camp was well hidden, at first appearing to be very small:

But from closer, it was clearly a large base and a well organised operation:

The raid on the mine has resulted in 7 young people being set free after 8 months of enslavement: 3 young women and 4 young men, all aged from about 20 years. Those 7 are now safely back in a nearby town, recovering from their ordeal and giving statements to police. In coming days they will start their long journeys home, and all will need extensive medical tests and health support to get them back in shape.

We believe we've found just the tip of the iceberg, and because of that we can't say much on the blog just now. There are many more young people yet to be found in other illegal gold mines, and we hope that some digging of our own will soon find result in more people being set free from similar camps.

Friday, November 07, 2014

At the other end of the week

Monday was a day of great hope coupled with great uncertainty. I wrote on Monday evening about the challenges being faced by 3 kids here at Blue Dragon:

- a 13 year old girl, "Huong," who has been rescued from a forced marriage in China but whose mother might have been involved in her trafficking;

- a 14 year old boy, "Hai," struggling to break free from the psychological chains keeping him involved in selling sex on the streets of Hanoi;

- and a 16 year old boy, "Tong," who has made a huge effort in recent months to leave the street life behind, and now faces the new challenge of starting in a work experience placement.

So how has the week unfolded?

None of these stories have finished. None will be finished for a long time yet. But the week is finishing with more reason for hope than we started with.

- Huong and her mother have been reunited; a beautifully emotional meeting, free from fear and guilt. It does seem that Huong's mother had some knowledge of her daughter's trafficking, but her lack of education (she's illiterate) and evidence of duress indicate that she was a victim of deception; it now looks like she had no idea what was actually happening with her daughter other than that she was going to work for someone. Today, there is hope that mother and daughter really can be together again.

- Hai spent the week going back and forth; he is a tormented and confused boy, who wants to escape but doesn't know how. At times throughout the week, it seemed that there was nothing we could do to help him. His decision was made. He stopped communicating. Finally, when I feared there was no possibility of turning this situation around, Hai turned up at a Blue Dragon safe house... and had the first proper meal and sleep he's had in months. Maybe, maybe, he'll be back for a second night.

- Tong's work placement has had a rocky start, but through no fault of his own. He fell ill early in the week, and did make a start in the restaurant but had to take some time off. The good news is that he's eager to get back as soon as possible.

No conclusions here. No neat endings. Tomorrow will be another day for success and for failure. But today the sun sets with renewed hope for these 3 kids, whose struggle for life might never be noticed on a world stage, but who deserve a world of love and support.

Tomorrow, the story continues.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Close of business

It's the end of a long day at Blue Dragon in Hanoi.

Meeting homeless kids every day, hearing stories of exploitation and abuse, we leave ourselves open to some pretty raw emotions. When we walk out the front gate at day's end, we carry with us all that we've seen: the tears of a mother desperate to find her missing daughter; the confusion of a teenage boy struggling to find his place in the world. We're just ordinary people, not automatons who can switch off at the close of business. 

And some days, as the U2 song reminds us, are better than others.

Today has been a tough one. Of all the hundreds of kids in our care at the moment, the day is marked by 3 particular stories that are yet to reach their conclusions.

"Huong" is just 13 years old, but already has been sold as a bride to a Chinese man. Blue Dragon has been working on this case for a couple of months; both the Chinese and Vietnamese police have been very active in finding her, and finally late last week Huong was delivered safely back to Vietnamese authorities, accompanied across the border by Blue Dragon's own Child Rights Advocate, Mr Van.

Huong is buzzing with excitement. What could be more joyous than being set free from a forced marriage, and being taken by the hand to begin the journey home? We've been present at hundreds of beautiful family reunions, but I fear that this one might not be so beautiful.

There's something that Huong doesn't yet know: her own mother is suspected as the trafficker.

People commonly assume that trafficked children in Vietnam are all sold by their parents. That's simply untrue. We've rescued over 350 trafficked kids, and there's only been one other occasion in which the parent was complicit - but that was a case of labour trafficking, and the parent recanted within the same day.

If this is true, that the mother sold her daughter to a 'marriage broker,' then it will be the first time we've seen it. And it will be unspeakably devastating for this 13 year old girl.

Back in Hanoi, the sex trafficking of underage boys continues to spiral out of control. Boys as young as 13, who end up on the streets because of family breakdown or even small conflicts at home or at school, are routinely targeted by pimps and taken to pedophiles offering care to hungry children, but delivering only abuse.

One of the boys caught up on this trap, "Hai," turned 14 just a week ago. He's been going with these men every night for the past few months; the only break he had was the month that he was detained in a Social Protection Centre. He certainly needs protection, but at the end of his time there they simply took him to the front door, gave him $5, and sent him on his way.

Hai is torn. He hates going with the men. He hates the men. He hates the way he feels about himself. And yet: he believes that he has nothing to lose by going with them. He meets them in parks, or through online chat rooms, makes the money he needs for a day of playing computer games, and the cycle repeats.

But today he says he wants to change. Hai tells me that he wants a future, and knows he needs to escape this life on the streets. He even opens up with information about the men he's recently been with.

At the end of a painful, painful conversation Hai says that he will have a final decision soon. He asks for money to eat and play games, so that tonight he doesn't have to go 'to work.' I give him the money, not knowing if anything he says is sincere. Is it all just a ploy? Is he playing me, the way he plays the men in the parks? I have no idea, but I have to take the risk that maybe he's telling the truth, and maybe tomorrow he really will turn his back on that life.

Another of the Blue Dragon boys, “Tong,” has already walked the path that Hai is on, and has made the decision to leave behind the life of ‘sex work’ on the streets. Not yet 16 years old, he has seen it all: he’s been passed around from family to family; adopted and then returned; he’s lived in a barn when his relatives exiled him from the house after his mother’s death; and he’s survived the streets of Hanoi by selling his body by the hour. 

In recent months, Tong has undergone a transformation. He left the gang that he had been following and moved into a Blue Dragon safe house. He studied a basic hospitality course and started playing musical instruments, which he apparently learned at some time in his very complex past. His progress hasn’t always been steady, but he’s still with us and doing his best. 

And now the latest step: Tong has been offered a work experience placement in a well regarded local restaurant. It’s only part time, and there’s no salary, but for Tong this is something incredible. 

Staff have taken him out to buy a bicycle, which he’ll need to get to work. He’s been fitted out with some new clothes, and even bought his first pair of shoes. To top it off, I bought him a cheap mobile phone so he can stay in touch with us and the restaurant manager. 

“Over the moon” is a complete cliché, but totally appropriate to Tong’s mood. He’s bouncing through Dragon House, bubbling with a happiness we’ve never seen in him before. It would be easy to think that this is because of the shiny new ‘things’ he now owns: clothes, a cool bicycle, a mobile phone. 

But at the heart of it, that’s not why he is so excited. The happiness stems from being someone: someone who can own a bicycle, ride it to work in his new clothes, and ring his friends to meet up when he’s finished. Those aren’t things that ‘street kids’ do. Those are things that ‘real people’ do. Tong is ‘somebody’ now. 

Of course, he hasn’t had his first day at work yet. He’s yet to experience the drag of going to work when all your friends are going out to play. Or the shock of having a customer grumble and complain when you get the order wrong. Or the disappointment of having a workmate who wants to slack off and get the new guy to do all the work.

For the moment, all Tong can think about is how great everything is going to be. 

The days ahead hold great uncertainty for Huong, Hai and Tong.

Was Huong's mother really involved in the trafficking of her own daughter? Does Huong already suspect this, or is she innocent to this dreadful possibility? If it's true: what will become of her?

Will Hai leave behind the streets, and the cycle of abuse that has ensnared him? Or is he just playing me along, trying to make some easy money to tide him over until his next encounter at the park? 

And how will Tong cope  with the pressure of living this new, 'ordinary' life? Before coming to Blue Dragon, he'd never been close to anyone who held down a steady, salaried job. Can he cope? If he fails, will that failure devastate his newfound confidence?

I wish I had all the answers to the problems I see every day; but sometimes I just don't. All I know is that, as today draws to a close, there is still hope for Huong, Hai and Tong. Whatever joys and terrors tomorrow may bring, those are still in the tomorrow. 

Right now, we have to believe that things can still work out ok.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A rapidly growing mess

I was riding a bicycle across Hanoi's famous Long Bien bridge when the boy, "Hieu," appeared from underneath the railway lines.

Long Bien is a city icon, and serves as the rail bridge across the Red River. It's also home to countless homeless children - and adults, too - who find hiding spots in the most dangerous places to keep away from unwanted guests.

I had known Hieu for some time; he'd been at Blue Dragon previously, but then been sent to Reform School and had only recently returned to the city. He was now 14 years old and, reformed or not, he was homeless.

We joined a group of kids who were playing games on the island in the middle of the river. For a couple of hours Hieu played and laughed like any normal boy; he looked tired, but enjoyed the chance to be with friends.

During a break, I quizzed him on how he was doing and how he had survived the past few weeks. Hieu looked a little uncomfortable and said that someone had been helping him. I could see that something was wrong, so I asked the simple question: "Who has been helping you?"

His answer chilled me: "Olivier."

Olivier is the name of a French doctor who is now back in France awaiting trial for sex crimes against children in Vietnam. At the time I spoke with Hieu, he was living and working in Hanoi, and his name had come up in countless disclosures from street children.

Knowing that Hieu was in contact with this man left me feeling physically ill. I quietly vowed to myself that I would do whatever I could to ensure Hieu was safe.

It's now more than a year since Olivier was arrested, and since then just one other man has been arrested for the same crime: a Vietnamese con artist who traveled the northern provinces with a group of underage boys.

Since 2012, Blue Dragon has worked directly with over 60 boys aged under 16 who have been sexually abused. Almost all are boys who came to the city due to problems at home, and found themselves either tricked or coerced into going back to a stranger's house, or to a hotel, for sex. While several of these men are foreigners, by far the majority are Vietnamese.

Over 60 boys have disclosed this information to us; and only 2 men have been arrested.

The city now has a network of pimps, and established meeting places where men target boys who are clearly homeless. Facebook is a much-used tool for men to communicate with their victims, or to send instructions to the pimps. Some of the men involved are powerful people, flaunting their wealth and connections to the children; while others work on the streets themselves.

Hanoi is a dangerous place to be a homeless child. The city has to face up to this insidious problem, or else face a future of being known as a sleazy child-sex destination.

Hieu is safe now; he's been off the streets ever since that day on the bridge. He goes to school, lives in a stable home, and has big plans for a career in hospitality. And yet, not a week goes by that Blue Dragon does not meet at least one more boy caught up in the vicious cycle of sexual abuse.

While we've done all we can so far to keep Hieu and children like him safe, there will be more children tomorrow who are in danger unless someone intervenes in this rapidly growing mess.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hold my hand

This photo was taken in China on Friday by a member of the Blue Dragon Rescue team. 

The girls are Vietnamese teens who were trafficked at different times and by different gangs for sale to the Chinese sex trade. One girl, aged 16, was sold to a brothel. The other, aged 15, was sold as a bride.

Last week, Blue Dragon worked with Chinese police to first rescue the younger girl, get her to safety near the Vietnamese border, then return inland to rescue the girl in the brothel. On Friday, we were back at the border with both girls, helping them to make their formal statements and prepare to cross back into Vietnam and begin the journey home. 

They met on Friday for the first time.

This brings to 352 the number of kids we have rescued from trafficking. Boys and girls, as young as 11, trafficked and sold to work on the street, to slave away in garment factories, to be repeatedly raped daily in Chinese brothels, or to be forced into marriages with complete strangers.

352 is a decent number. But data can easily hide us from the reality of trafficking, which is deeply personal.

It's personal because the impact on a victim's life is something only they can know, and which will live with them forever. No matter how much they say, nobody else can know what it was like to be deceived and sold like a farm animal for another person's profit or pleasure. Most traffickers are known to their victims; they are friends or relatives or associates. They use trust as a weapon, and in so doing destroy their victims' belief in other people. Data deflects us from the intensely personal nature of this crime. Human trafficking, for whatever purpose, is a crime against humanity.

But for all of the agony that these teen girls have suffered, this photo gives us a reason to smile.

Having barely met each other, but being connected by a shared pain and also a shared story of being rescued and set free, the girls are on their way to make a formal police statement. And what are they doing? Hold hands and smiling.

What they have experienced has been horrific beyond imagination, but they are not alone. They have each other, and they have a hope that they will soon go home to see their family and friends, and all the people who love them.

Over recent months, human contact has been brutal and forced. By lightly and naturally reaching out for each other, and holding hands like kids do, these girls have won a victory over their traffickers and all who would do them harm. They may have been beaten, but they are not defeated.

Good on you, girls.Your pain may be deeply personal, but you are not alone, and great hope lies ahead.