Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Human Trafficking - A Survivor's Story

In 2005, I had volunteered with the Vietnam Handicraft Research and Promotion Center (http://www.hrpc.com.vn/) on an Oxfam Quebec project in Hanoi, Quang Ninh and Ha Giang provinces. The project aimed to reintegrate survivors of human trafficking through skills training in handicraft production. Working with survivors gave me an opportunity to hear their stories of pain, betrayal, shame, and rejection (Journey 2005 - Cambodia and Vietnam).  However, it was their collective spirit that motivated me to support their cause. I suggested the name for their group be WIN since it represented their attitude, and the members really liked it.

In Hai Duong province, 2009, I conducted a month-long training program for Gruppo Trentino di Volontariato (GTV) from Trento, Italy, in a project where we replicated the successful aspects of the Oxfam Quebec project. This project was expanded to include domestic violence and impoverished women who were the head of households. In December, 2011, this group finally became an independent, self sustaining entity. You can connect with both the WIN group and the Kim Thanh Cooperative in Hai Duong through the Fair Trade shop at HRPC (Click Here)

A few months ago a friend, Luke Dale-Harris who works with the Centre for Women’s Development and the Peace House Shelter in Hanoi, had approached me inquiring of my experiences with survivors of human trafficking. I also put him in contact with a few people and organizations working in the field of reintegrating survivors of human trafficking in Hanoi. Most recently, in an effort to raise awareness of the tragic impact of Human Trafficking, Luke has written the following insightful article depicting a personal journey and attempts to heal:


The jagged line that falters its way across the map, weaving over and around the contours that connect Vietnam and China, represents the border between these two countries to all, yet means distinctly different things to everyone. To the traveler it’s a challenge, the trader an opportunity, the farmer an inconvenience, the consumer an opportunity for cheap goods and the politician a threat. Yet when you reach it, at any point apart from the major border stations, it dissolves, like a mirage. You are left guessing at which country you’re in from the brands of motorbikes being driven and the writing on discarded noodle packets. The scenery is, of course, identical, while the people who move within it are often from the same ethnic group, wear the same clothes, live in the same style houses and speak the same language. 

Historically, the people of Northern Vietnam and Southern China have not been itinerant types, generally remaining tied to the land where they are born throughout their lives unless forced into movement by outside forces. Therefore, for many, this scar that runs through the middle of their land, dividing a people that it is largely united, is less important than you might imagine, lying beyond the peaks that mark the edges of the world they have carved for themselves. 

Yet the ever increasing amount of roads that cut through these mountains, steadily filling with larger, faster vehicles coming to and from far flung lands, suggests something else; not a world that has shrunk, as the imperialist’s cliché tells us, but a world that his infinitely expanded. The expansion has, in many ways, relieved much of the pressure of life in the rural border zones, some of the poorest areas in Vietnam, bringing money in through trade both domestic and international. However, with increased growth comes increased awareness, and the material inequality that lies at the heart of globalization soon becomes clear, often fueling desires less for social justice than personal wealth. If there’s any one law of global capitalism it’s that it’s a game for individuals in which nothing is out of bounds for trade.

Do, a 20 year old woman of Hmong ethnicity, is a resident at the Peace House shelter for former victims of human trafficking in Hanoi. Talking of her home town in the border province of Lao Cai she says that conditions have been going downhill in recent years for young women like herself as, though poverty is no longer a problem, they live in fear of being trafficked. ‘In my village alone quite a few people have been trafficked over recent years. To me, this is a sign that society is in decline

The official information and statistics available on the subject of trafficking in Vietnam is limited and as such it is difficult to gauge the exact extent of the problem, with the real figures being largely lost within the huge amount of unregulated emigration (between 30 and 40% of all Vietnamese emigration). Estimates vary hugely and what figures there are often say more about the attention the problem is being given than the extent of the problem itself.

Neither the UN nor the Vietnamese Women’s Union (VWU) could provide any reliable statistics and both pointed in the direction of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security who offer the often repeated figure that there were 2, 935 Vietnamese victims of Human trafficking between 2004 and 2009. However, this is hard to believe when the other available number is Hagar International’s estimate that there have been 400,000 victims since 1990. 

In talking to Madam Thuy, the director of the Human Trafficking department for VWU, it is apparent that even though the numbers aren’t there to prove it, the general consensus among experts in the field is one of apprehension that the problem is increasing and that, as Do mentioned, it is not as simple as just looking to poverty to explain it. 

Of course there are no solid rules as to what factors lead someone to becoming a victim of trafficking’ Thuy says, ‘though we do look for things they share in common to try and better understand the causes’

Although hesitant in citing these common factors, throughout the interview Thuy comes back again and again to the subject of family. She argues that it is the disintegration of this structure that lies at the root of trafficking in Vietnam, whether it results in kidnappings directly from the home, the selling of one’s relatives or the susceptibility of young girls to being tricked into leaving their homes, only to be kidnapped and sold. 

Ironically enough, in China it is often the demand for an ideal family model that fuels the industry. With the one child policy resulting in a preference for male children and subsequently a distinct shortage of girls available for marriage, both young women and very young boys are high in demand. As such, in contrast to the global trend in which girls are usually trafficked for prostitution and boys for labour, in the north of Vietnam they are primarily sold as wives and sons to Chinese families. 

At root though, there remain many similarities between the Chinese and Vietnamese family models. Both equally informed by the Confucian code, with its emphasis placed on hierarchical relationships and filial loyalty, the family remains the core social unit in each country. In Vietnam it permeates all areas of culture, through language, religion and politics; its influence inescapable.

It is, Thuy suggest, the clash between this familial tradition and the culture of individualism and opportunism inherent in modernization which causes much of the present tension in Vietnamese families. This same clash can go a long way to explaining the drastic measures taken to procure family members in China. 

Born into a Hmong family and the sixth of eight siblings, seven girls and one adulated son, Do’s future was in the making way before she was around to take any part in it. Although she talks of how she loved studying and dreamt of growing up to be a teacher, her parents had other plans and pulled her out of school at the age of 14 to get married. A complete education was reserved just for her brother, who, after finishing high school, went on to work as a local governmental officer. However, at no point in describing her childhood does Do reveal any resentment for either her brother or the decisions that her parents made for her, talking fondly of all her family and her brother in particular.

In hearing of the current trend which Thuy had earlier mentioned, that significantly fewer girls finish their education than boys, she shrugs and begins to talk of the man she married. ‘At first I didn’t like my husband. I didn’t even know him. He was just a friend of my brothers who my parents had chosen for me. However, when we were married and living together I quickly came to realize that he was a good man, just like my parents had told me. He worked in the fields with me and always worked hard. Never once did he beat or even shout at me.’

Four years into their marriage Do’s husband got kidney disease and within 3 months he was dead. Do was left alone with a ten year old daughter, a half built house and the bank pestering her for a debt repayment that she couldn’t afford. Shortly after his death she was robbed, the thieves taking many of the animals that were her livelihood and the pump which brought water to her home. ‘It was a terrible time for me and I was very afraid……. There are many thieves and drug addicts in my area. Without anyone to protect me and work the farm I felt I couldn’t survive.’ 

It is customary in Vietnam for the wife to move into her husband’s parent’s home immediately after their marriage, from then on living as part of his family. However, there is no such rigid tradition to determine what happens to the wife in the event of her husband’s death. The widow is not generally expected to go onto marry, and with their son gone, the incentive for his family to continue to act as host disappears. Do talks of a sense of hostility she felt from her parents in law in the months she was living with them following her husband’s death. With him gone they started looking to the daughter he had left behind, now the sole figure to carry on their family lineage. 
Hailing from the Kinh ethnicity, by far the largest and most powerful ethnic group in Vietnam, Do’s parents in law were determined to keep their granddaughter firmly within the Kinh tradition. After my husband’s death his parents decided that they wanted to bring up my daughter on their own terms. They refused to let me take her back to my parents’ house.’ 
Determined to become financially independent so she could look after her child, Do took a job in a wood factory nearby where she was paid 2,000,000 VND ($100) a month. After four months though she fell sick and they fired her. She moved back home with her parents to work the field but, unable to make any money for herself she found herself living like a child again, separated from her own daughter and unable to take any part in her upbringing. 
It was at Tet, The Vietnamese New Year, when her cousin came back to visit from the provincial capital of Lao Cai where he had moved to find work. ‘It was a very bad time for me as I couldn’t afford anything for the celebration. When my cousin came though things changed. He was very generous and sympathetic and he gave me 15,000,000 VND ($750) to help look after my child.
When he left and Do went back to working the field she began to contemplate moving to the city. ‘His life seemed so comfortable compared to ours where we have to work in the fields for long hours every day, are constantly tired and get almost no money for ourselves. I thought that if I moved to Lao Cai I could find the independence that I couldn’t get at home.’ 
More pressingly, the interest on the debt which her husband had left behind was piling up and she needed to find a job to pay it off. Lao Cai seemed to offer the opportunity to do this, find her independence again and raise enough money to give her child a good upbringing. 
She had been toying with the idea of emigrating for a while by the time her cousin returned one morning and offered to take her back to Lao Cai with him. She was to live with him and work as a shop assistant, doing reasonable hours and earning a high salary. The only catch was that they had to leave immediately. 
He told me that we had fifteen minutes before we must leave. I wanted to ask permission to go from my parents but he warned me that if I did so the position would be withdrawn. I had to come with him in secret. I agreed, taking nothing with me but a few clothes.’
In her family and parents in law’s eyes she had abandoned them and her daughter. In reality though, her cousin had promised that she could phone them when she got to Lao Cai and come back and visit whenever she wanted. It was later that day she found out this was a lie.
‘When we arrived in Lao Cai it was about 5pm. We had travelled there by motorbike but on the outskirts of the town we met with 3 Chinese men who took us to the centre in their car. We went to a restaurant where we had dinner and when we had finished eating my cousin told me that I must go with the Chinese men. Not knowing where or why I refused. He beat me for this. Later, around 9pm he took me to a bridge where he told me that if I didn’t go with the Chinese men then he would kill me and throw me into the river and then he would return to my village and kill my family. After some time of thinking I decided to go with them. I had no choice.’
From this point on Do’s tale reads like one of any commodity that is sold through an illicit market; she is carted around, repeatedly changes hands, stored away in small huts and put on sale at various markets. Every time she acted out she was beaten back into submission. Eventually she was bought by a 27 year old Chinese man who chose her for his wife from three other girls because, she claims, she was the healthiest looking, having been on the market for the shortest amount of time. 
It was only three months before she was bought home by Chinese police, in good health and of still stable mind. She is one of the luckiest.

Do’s story of being sold by a relative is in no way unusual in Vietnam. It is estimated that over 50% of victims are tricked into being trafficked by acquaintances of theirs, often friends, relatives or neighbours who promise work and a better lifestyle. They will make about $100 for the trade of a single woman.
When Do describes her cousin though she displays little anger, just a sense of surprise that he could have done this to her. ‘He was always close to our family, helping us work the land when he was younger and then receiving help from my parents later on when they gave him a plot of land and assisted him in farming it. I never suspected that he could be a threat to me.’ 
Neither Do nor Madam Thuy could give any insight into how someone could commit such a crime to someone they have known and loved, both resorting to just telling stories of other similar instances. 
Do talks of the many woman she knew who are now missing and of the mothers who have come to visit her since she returned in hope of finding some clue as to where their daughter is.
Thuy remembers a middle-aged woman who sold all four of her nieces in one go. 
However, when asked about how so few of the perpetrators go unpunished for their crimes, despite the high risk of trafficking an associate who often finds their way home, they have much more to say.
Many of the girls don’t dare go to the police’ Thuy says. ‘They are afraid of the consequences and they want to forget the whole thing’. 
Do explains. ‘In Vietnam the culture deems anyone who has been trafficked guilty. When I returned I felt like it was me who had committed a crime, I felt guilty for what had happened to me in China’.
Beyond this, the law refuses to recognize a victim’s verdict as sufficient ground for prosecution. Getting the police involved may cause a public scandal, bring attention to their situation and has no guarantee of success. In the rare cases the victims do go to the law the perpetrator often gets wind of it and escapes.
Returning home to shame, alienation and insufficient legal support, female victims often find themselves living alone and in poverty, struggling within the margins of a society that emphasizes the collective and abandons the individual. With little possibility of reintegration and the almost impossible prospect of making it alone, many of them go back into trafficking, though this time not as victims but as perpetrators. UN statistics estimate that as many as 70% of traffickers are women and that the majority of these are former victims. 
The reception of victims on their return into Vietnam is a major problem’ says Thuy.’ When girls come back to a family that rejects them and a society that judges them unclean it has both personal and practical consequences. They often lose faith in themselves and in need of money they fall into crime, most commonly trafficking.’  
Even for those who don’t go into the trafficking industry, the social stigma they face normally stops them talking about their experience and raising the awareness that is so crucial in putting a stop to the trade. Without a victim there is no crime and until the wrongs that these people face are recognized the self perpetuating cycle will go on and the industry will continue to grow. 
This is the issue that the Vietnam government faces today and, with the help of the many domestic and international aid programs, they have begun to make significant headway into tackling it. Focusing primarily on education, awareness raising and the rehabilitation and support of victims they are looking to make changes on a grass roots level, altering the stringent moral code that can act as the most effective weapon in preventing crime. With advice centers, shelters and school programs being set up in the most prominently affected areas, the reality of this international industry is beginning to be understood in the places where it all begins.  

Having been at the Peace House Shelter for over 6 months now, Do is beginning to consider leaving to find work and rebuild her life on her own. Taking a break from her tailoring class to give the interview, she sits cross legged over a cup of tea on the floor of her shared bedroom. Other women come and go over the course of the next two hours, each time with Do making sure to stop what she’s saying and introduce them. ‘These are my family now’ she says of the other residents, ‘and the saddest thing I have to face these days is seeing them leave at the end of their stay’. Offered a place in the shelter for as long as they want, the women usually leave after about a year, normally having learnt enough skills in their time there to go on and find a new line of work. Perhaps more importantly though each of them will leave with the confidence to take part in the world on their own terms, no longer a victim to anyone, least of all their own conscience.  
I have learnt since coming (to the shelter) that I have nothing to be guilty of. I am the victim, not the criminal. Now I know this I feel happy and positive about the future.’  


Luke Dale-Harris was born and raised in England until, after leaving university he moved to Budapest to work in an independent arts centre. A year later he moved to Hanoi where, amongst other things, he works with the Centre for Women’s Development and the Peace House Shelter. After three months of getting to know the residents at the shelter and researching Human Trafficking in Vietnam he conducted the interviews that resulted in this piece.

For more information on the Centre for Women’s Development and the Peace House Shelter go to: http://www.peacehousevietnam.com/

Feel free to add your comments, thoughts or ideas below. For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf:
Human Trafficking - A Survivor's Story