Please note: this article may be distressing for some readers.
Just outside the Old Town in Hanoi sits one of the most important buildings in Vietnam, though you wouldn’t know it. There are no crowds of people lining up to get in and no TripAdvisor star rating nailed to the fence. From the outside, it appears to be a regular office block. Inside is where the team at Blue Dragon helps children in crisis and works tirelessly to rescue kids who have been trafficked into sweatshops and sex trade. The latter is what I am here to learn about.
Since 2007, Blue Dragon has rescued 189 girls and young women from brothels and forced marriages. Rescues are dangerous and complicated. They can take months of careful planning with police and local authorities to execute successfully. With sex trafficking, girls are usually taken across the border into China, making rescues even more difficult. Local police can’t cross borders, but Blue Dragon can.
I’m told of two high school friends, Ngoc and Minh* who had just completed their grade ten school year. The girls were invited out by a friend of Ngoc’s older brother. They had never met this friend, but Ngoc had been chatting with him on social media and he seemed nice. After grabbing a bite to eat, one of the boys suggested it was time to head home but needed to quickly stop at a friend’s house on the way. The girls started to worry, but went with the older boys to a house on the other side of a river; the border between Vietnam and China. When they crossed the river, the girls were raped and sold to another man who took them to a nearby house. Ngoc and Minh* quickly understood what was happening. They’d be held hostage until they were sold again – most likely to a brothel. When the man left for the day, they broke a window, jumped three storeys to the ground and ran to safety. They contacted local police, who got in touch with Blue Dragon. The Blue Dragon team brought Ngoc and Minh* back to Vietnam, helped identify their traffickers and represented the girls in court. Their traffickers received 30-year jail sentences.
Two other girls, Bin and Thay*, didn’t get out so quickly. They met a woman at the bus stop in Northern Vietnam on their way to stock up on supplies for the new school year. The woman was a known trafficker targeting underage girls to sell to Chinese brothels. She took them out for a meal and promised to buy them new clothes. Instead she took them over the border into China. Bin was sold multiple times as a virgin. Over a 12-day period, she was repeatedly raped by her traffickers, before being sold to a brothel. Thay was sold to a different brothel. Once the owners discovered that the police had been alerted to her disappearance they moved her to the same brothel as Bin, 25 days after she was taken. After over three weeks of rape, torture and abuse, Bin and Thay were rescued by Chinese police and Blue Dragon.
What happens next
There are a number of steps that take place after a rescue: the girls are moved into emergency accommodation. They’re given counselling, health care and assistance with making statements to the police – a confronting and difficult prospect for almost everyone. How long girls stay here varies; anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the circumstances. The Project X team – carers, social workers, psychologists and a coordinator – then work with the girls to address the physical and emotional trauma they have experienced. In their experience, the recovery process is much slower if you don’t talk about what you’ve been through.
After the girls are reunited with their families, the Blue Dragon team stays in touch with frequent phone conversations and community visits. They support the girls’ continuing education and training, and provide ongoing psychological care.
The girls who are rescued by Blue Dragon are never referred to as victims; they are always survivors.
When a trafficker is arrested, the Blue Dragon team sometimes work alongside local authorities to run circuit courts. These essentially bring the courts to the trafficker’s community rather than taking the trafficker to a city court. Conducting legal proceedings within the community means everyone attends, and learns about the law and the consequences of trafficking. It’s hard to believe, but many people don’t actually realize that what they’re doing is wrong. These circuit courts are an opportunity for education; people learn about the tricks a trafficker might use to gain the trust of young girls. One of the most common lures involves job opportunities in China; “Why would you want to stay in Vietnam when you can earn so much more money in a new job?” Girls often pack up and leave without saying goodbye to their parents; they think they’re doing the right thing by their families.
Walking through the halls of this nondescript building, meeting the staff and volunteers, and hearing the harrowing tales of survival highlights how naïve I am. It highlights how naïve we all are about the state of the world. The situations Blue Dragon are dealing with occur every single day.
The staff I meet today are testament to how to make the world a better place. From their work with street kids – providing them with a safe, family-like environment, nutritious food, and access to showers and clean clothes; their tireless endeavours to get kids out of sweatshop conditions; and rescuing girls from situations that will make you shudder. Blue Dragon – and Project X – exists because there are girls in desperate need of their help.
*Names have been changed.
Images courtesy of Blue Dragon, feature image c/o Unsplash.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is supported by The Intrepid Foundation, a not-for-profit supporting non-government organisations around the world. Donations to Blue Dragon will be matched dollar for dollar by The Intrepid Foundation. For more information, visit our website.