This month’s World Day against Trafficking in Persons theme ‘Victims’ voices lead the way’, raises the volume on the rights of trafficking victims. In Vietnam, lawyers and legal aid officers are learning new approaches to ensure victims of trafficking receive the free legal assistance they need to seek legal recourse and access compensation as part of their journey to recovery.
Victims of trafficking, experience devastating trauma and abuse, and often lack the means or knowledge to access justice and available support services.
Legal aid services play an important role in giving trafficking victims hope for justice through legal assistance. Access to legal assistance enables them to reclaim their rights and access remedies, including compensation. This is often quite a complicated process - especially when information is not readily available.
In Vietnam, victims of trafficking have been identified as one of eight disadvantaged groups, with the right to receive legal advice and assistance – free of charge.
In 2020, 70 percent of the trafficking victims identified by the Government of Vietnam requested to access services such as legal aid, according to the 2021 US Government Trafficking in Persons Report. The report also reveals of the 121 trafficked, 112 were females and 32 were children.
However, despite services and government assistance coordinated through Vietnam’s National Referral Mechanisms, there are still many hurdles for trafficked victims seeking access to remedies who may miss out.
ASEAN-ACT’s Vietnam Country Manager, Ms. Dang Thi Hanh, says pandemic-related restrictions have compounded existing challenges. She explains that the extent to which victims of trafficking access legal aid depends a lot on the approach taken by legal aid organisations and referral services in identifying and supporting victims.
“The situation is further complicated by the fact that many victims who return home of their own accord are often not identified as having been trafficked. Ethnic minorities and other marginalised groups often don’t have access to information on what to do. And in all instances, victims need to submit government-issued certificates confirming their eligibility to access legal aid. Imagine, the difficulties for victims who are children and other marginalised groups.”
In Vietnam, social stigma around human trafficking also prevents victims from coming forward. And the risks of re-living past trauma through testimonies, as well as complicated legal processes can also deter trafficked victims in pursuing legal actions. Yet, victim testimonies are paramount in providing evidence that can put perpetrators behind bars, dismantle trafficking networks and break the cycle of exploitation.
The provision of legal services and assistance is a major step towards safeguarding the rights of trafficking victims and increasing their prospects of recovery and reintegration. However, there are inherent risks of subjecting victims to criminal justice processes, which support workers and lawyers need to understand and mitigate the very real risk of causing further harm.
The regional standard on victim protection and victims’ rights to justice is provided in the ASEAN Convention on Trafficking in Persons.
In practice, this requires first responders and justice officials to place victims front and centre of the legal process, adopting methods that are non-discriminatory and tailored to the needs of individual victims.
Victim-centred legal support
This victim-centred and trauma-informed approach was the focus of a three-day training for 35 lawyers and legal aid officers from northern Vietnam.
The training this month was made possible through a new partnership between the Vietnam Judicial Support Association for the Poor (VIJUSAP) and the Australian Government through the ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking program in Vietnam.
International legal advisors, together with experts in victim rights, gender and social inclusion and psychology led discussions on individualised care and treatment, non-discrimination and gender-sensitivity, confidentiality, right to privacy, anonymity and other human rights. Approaches to handling child trafficking cases was a particular area of focussed learning.
For Legal Aid Center Director Mr. Nguyen Cong Huong, the workshop provided new approaches and perspectives on how to work with victims of human trafficking.
“I have been working in legal aid for more than 17 years, but this is the first time I was introduced to the victim-centered approach…especially the soft-skills relating to working with trafficked victims who are vulnerable.”
VIJUSAP Chairwoman Ms. Ta Thi Minh Ly explained how the training was also a good opportunity for lawyers and legal aid officers to share experiences and challenges, ‘…and together find the best solution to support, protect, assist and reintegrate victims.’
“…particularly equipping [them] with advanced skills and a know-how approach to understand victims, what they are facing, and how they feel, to find the most suitable way to work with them to boost their self-confidence and to actively engage in criminal proceedings.”
This, she believes, not only helps the victims themselves, but also the criminal justice agencies in solving human trafficking cases.
The Vietnam Judicial Support Association for the Poor provides free legal aid advice and judicial assistance to support and empower local people so that they have a better understanding of the law and their relevant rights and responsibilities in voicing and pursuing complaints. For more information, visit their website here.