This year’s International Women’s Day 2022 theme, #BreakTheBias, calls on people everywhere to imagine a world free from discrimination, stereotypes, and bias. Research and data have key roles to play in breaking down harmful stereotypes that contribute to bias, by strengthening evidence.
Trafficking in persons is a gendered crime, that while disproportionately affects women and girls; can affect anyone. However, studies show that some groups may be more vulnerable to trafficking than others, and these vulnerable groups are usually already marginalised within society.
The following article contains depiction of violence and abuse that some readers may find difficult and/or triggering.
The 1,297km China-Vietnam border is a bustling trade route with 21 trade points and two rail crossings. The border is also a hotspot for human trafficking, with studies estimating that 80% of all Vietnamese trafficking victims end up in China.
In 2021, non-government organisation Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation conducted research on trafficking in persons using data they collected over 15 years. They found that 50% of the detected victims of trafficking to China are exploited in forced marriage and sexual and domestic servitude, and a further 30% in forced labour. Other instances include sexual exploitation, forced surrogacy and baby trafficking. These statistics highlight the link between financial desperation and vulnerability to trafficking.
The Australian Government supported ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking (ASEAN-ACT) program works in partnership with non-government organisations across the region to address and ultimately reduce human trafficking statistics like these, to protect victims and ‘at risk’ groups vulnerable to trafficking.
In July 2021, ASEAN-ACT initiated a grant to Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation to improve victim identification policies and procedures in Vietnam, and advocate for greater legal protection for victims of trafficking, particularly women and children.
Through this grant, Blue Dragon are conducting research and reviews of the trafficking cases they handle across Vietnam to strengthen the evidence around human trafficking that aims to improve policy and legislative reform, and to support provincial cooperation.
Between July to September 2021, the organisation supported the identification and representation of 29 trafficked victims (all female) in court, and the investigation of their cases. These cases have led to the prosecution of 15 traffickers.
They are also continuing negotiations with Ha Giang province’s Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs in preparing a proposal to the provincial People’s Council. The proposal aims to enable a decision for the department to provide emergency assistance to suspected victims under investigation.
What makes people vulnerable to human trafficking?
In November 2021, Blue Dragon released a study which found ‘…the intersection between ethnicity, poverty and gender is the main vulnerability to human trafficking in Vietnam.’
While trafficking can affect anyone, financial insecurity combined with cultural and social norms regarding gender roles and ethnicity create a set of circumstances that make certain people more vulnerable to trafficking than others.
84% of all survivors they’ve rescued are women and girls, and ethnic minorities are three times more likely to be victims of trafficking.
According to their findings, they found that on average in Vietnam, girls leave school three years earlier than boys.
Typically, when families face financial hardship, girls are more likely to leave school to support their families than boys. The research also found that child marriage, while an illegal practice in Vietnam, remains common in rural areas and places girls more at risk of trafficking.
Case study: 17-year-old female from Southern Vietnam
This was certainly the case for 17-year-old Ngoc* from Ca Mau in southern Vietnam, a province with particularly high incidences of poverty. As her family faced increasing financial hardship, she made the difficult decision to leave school and find work. She and two of her friends were offered high-paying jobs in China by an acquaintance, and naturally they jumped at what they thought was a life-changing opportunity.
As soon as they crossed the border they were immediately separated and sold into forced marriage where Ngoc was held for 12 months, with no phone and no contact with the outside world.
Fortunately, Ngoc found an opportunity to flee - that many in her position do not - and left the house in the cover of darkness. She was found by an elderly woman who contacted the police, who contacted Vietnamese law enforcement, who then contacted Blue Dragon.
This scenario is not uncommon for Blue Dragon, who work closely with Vietnamese law enforcement to conduct rescue missions. Ngoc returned to Vietnam in June and has chosen to stay in Blue Dragon’s shelter in Hanoi so she can finish her education with the financial support of Blue Dragon.
“After nearly one year in China, it’s challenging for me to trust anyone again. I understand that only with my own knowledge I can be independent and support my family.”
Blue Dragon support victims of trafficking by providing emergency and long-term counselling, medical support, accommodation and meals, and education and training to assist with access to safe employment. All victims also receive repatriation assistance to reunite with their families and legal support in dealing with the police and prosecution channels.
Most survivors receive this support within 4 to 10 days, however in instances like Ngoc’s the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed her plans to return to her family. Similarly, for many victims of trafficking, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly challenged repatriation and rescue missions.
Blue Dragon work closely with victims to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Many repatriated victims have had difficulties finding work, and others have lost their jobs or had their education plans cancelled. In these instances, the organisation provides online counselling, training, and therapeutic activities.
Before COVID-19, their rescue team would typically work with victims to find windows of opportunity for them to escape with as little risk as possible and collaborate with the authorities throughout. Their team arranges transportation to the border for the trafficked victim, and now cover the costs of the mandatory quarantine, COVID tests and related transport.
Research and evidence informs policy
Research such as their 2021 study is critical in shedding the light to better understand trafficking in persons patterns, vulnerabilities, correct identification of victims, and helps to advocate for more evidence-informed policy at both national and sub-national levels.
For example, their findings identified the H’mong group as the most vulnerable ethnic minority to trafficking in persons in Vietnam.
According to a 2019 census H’mong people make up 1.4% of Vietnam’s total population, however they comprise 20% of the victims assisted by Blue Dragon. Ethnic minorities historically face barriers to education and employment opportunities that perpetuate cycles of poverty and hinder economic advancement. It’s in this environment that trafficking is more likely to occur.
Human trafficking from Vietnam to China continues to be a major concern – due to closed borders, traffickers are using dangerous and illicit routes to traffic victims. The strict regulations in China due to the pandemic have also resulted in the deportation of many Vietnamese citizens. But despite the pandemic, the Vietnamese judiciary continued to prosecute and adjudicate human trafficking cases.
Frontline organisations like Blue Dragon have valuable knowledge and experience working directly with trafficked persons which can be harnessed to inform policy, formulate laws and build coalitions that is crucial for combatting human trafficking domestically and regionally.
ASEAN-ACT’s partnership with Blue Dragon will build on their research, ensuring practitioners and actors in ASEAN’s counter trafficking community have the knowledge to protect victims and vulnerable groups, and to #BreakTheBias associated with human trafficking.
The @ASEAN-🇦🇺Counter Trafficking program works with partners like @BlueDragonVN to support research that can improve our efforts to counter #HumanTrafficking. Read more ⬇️ https://t.co/UduWpeDFDH pic.twitter.com/LLCPoDzh1h— Will Nankervis (@AusAmbASEAN) March 9, 2022
Learn more about Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation by visiting their website at https://www.bluedragon.org/
Download their latest report via https://www.bluedragon.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/What-makes-victims-vulnerable-to-TIP-Nov-9-2021.pdf
Read more about our other grant partners here: https://www.aseanact.org/about/grants-program/.