Cracks widen for Vietnam’s most vulnerable
In northern Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of workers cross the Chinese border each year in search of work, among them women lured on false pretences and trafficked into marriage or sex work. As Vietnam's economy has slowed in recent months, these women are more vulnerable than ever
By Ashley Lampard
Every year, thousands of Vietnamese women leave their homes to venture across the border to China in search of hard, laborious work.
For people from minority cultures, like Hmong, Nung and Muong, living deep in the mountains doesn’t provide jobs with enough income to support their families, and they’re often forced to find money elsewhere. Many will be gone for months on end, working long days in succession with little rest, wilting over a hot sewing machine.
They do it because they need the money, but for many of these women there is little knowledge of what other risks might be waiting on the border. In 2016 alone, an estimated 200,000 people left Vietnam by irregular means to look for seasonal work, mostly in China and other bordering countries. While many found the labour they had sought, others were snared in a nightmare of human trafficking and sexual violence.
“The number of Vietnamese people going to China for work is huge,” says Le Thi Hong Luong, anti-trafficking coordinator at Blue Dragon, a non-governmental organisation based in Hanoi that cares for youth and at-risk families around Vietnam. “That’s why victims fall into traps of trafficking. They believe they’re also going to China to work.”
According to government data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), from 2008 to 2016, Vietnamese authorities officially counted 8,366 trafficking survivors, with 85% women and children. Most cases were transnational, sending people to neighbouring China, Laos and Cambodia.
“In particular,” IOM analysts stated in the 2017 report, “the border with China was a trafficking hotspot that accounted for 70 per cent of detected cases during this period.”
The moment of reunion with a trafficked woman and her family. Photo: Blue Dragon
The report authors described human trafficking as an increasingly complex enterprise, one that’s “taken more diverse forms”. Still, the report states, commercial sexual exploitation and forced marriage are the most common causes.
Trang is one of these women. Born and raised in northern Vietnam’s high altitudes, trying to survive where jobs and money are scarce. For the purpose of anonymity, she’ll be identified with the pseudonym that Michael Brosowski, Blue Dragon founder and co-CEO, uses for her – Trang.
Before Covid-19 spread from China to the rest of the world, Trang took out a small loan. As the outbreak spread, forcing Vietnam into a lockdown and bringing the economy to a lull, payments on her little loan grew into a big debt. Trang was left with a decision: She could either head north for work, or face the loan sharks at home.
She made her choice, taking a job from a trusted friend and starting the journey north to the forest trails in the borderlands, where contact to the outside world is limited and narrow roads are surrounded by deep drops into rivers of mist.
Isolation has made the borderlands a kind of black box for information, where the truth for workers like Trang can blur like the sight of those valley bottoms
These trails aren’t an uncommon avenue for migrants looking to cross borders without documentation, according to the IOM. But while the forests give them cover, they also shroud the work of those who would exploit them.
Isolation has made the borderlands a kind of black box for information, where the truth for workers like Trang can blur like the sight of those valley bottoms.
“Our presence out in the provinces has been limited,” Brosowski told the Globe. “We have people out there, but they’re not able to travel as often. We’re not hearing as much. We don’t yet know what that means.”
The first time Brosowski saw Trang was in a photo.
“She was naked and terrified,” Brosowski wrote in his blog Life is a Long Story. “She was clutching her arms over her nakedness. Deep bruises are evident across her shoulders. Her face was looking up at the camera, her lips were gnarled in horror. Her eyes were pleading for mercy.”
Trang’s friend never had a job for her. He was a broker – a pimp. He’s referred to as a “friend” because, to Trang, that’s how he first seemed. He might also have been a neighbour or a love interest. He might have built the relationship up over a few days, or a few months, online or in person. He may just have been a familiar face. Just someone looking for money.
“In some cases, the trafficker has the same background as the victim,” Luong explained. “They have a low level of education, they’re unemployed, and they live in a minority group. When someone asks them to bring a girl to the border area, they agree because, like the victim, they’re unaware of human trafficking.”
By the time Trang knew what was happening to her, she was already deep inland, far from home and her family. Her captors told her they’d be taking her to China, to sell her as a wife.
Trang’s wasn’t going to wilfully accept a life of slavery, rape and servitude to a man in China. She struggled, broke free, and ran. But just as she thought she was safe, the brokers found her.
China’s one-child policy has left the country with 34 million more men than women. This leaves a Poland-sized lonely heart in the country that has sent agents for would-be grooms looking for brides in neighbouring countries. Some agencies have ventured as far as Pakistan and across Central Asia to recruit women for marriage in China. The severe gender imbalance there gives women more leverage to choose a partner, making it harder for men lacking what Brosowski calls “personal resources” to find a wife.
“These men may not have a lot of money,” he explained. “They might have an intellectual disability or impairment, they might be alcoholics or drug addicts.”
When women like Trang are sold as ‘wives’, they usually find themselves in abusive relationships. They’re kept against their will, living, as families do in China, in a home with the man’s parents. In a forced marriage, these parents also help to keep the woman captive.
The man’s influence often extends beyond the home. He’ll typically want to have a baby, and once his captive bride is pregnant, he’ll start plotting to get his money back. He may do this by forcing her to work in whatever means allows him to recoup his investment, including prostitution.
Trang’s captors knew that she would never submit to this idea, so, as Brosowski writes, “they came up with another plan”.
The idea was to get Trang’s mother back in Vietnam to pay a ransom of $10,000. To help sway her decision, Brosowski writes that the brokers “beat and tortured her, stripped her naked, and raped her”.
The stories the girls told seemed unbelievable … Except that they all came back telling the same stories. About having to have 20 men every day, and the torture that would happen if they didn’t complyMichael Brosowski, Blue Dragon founder and co-CEO
The photo Brosowski saw was the result of this vicious bartering strategy. The captors told Trang’s mother that if they didn’t pay the money, they’d sell her to a brothel. This outcome would be, as Brosowski says, “relentlessly terrifying.”
When Blue Dragon started doing work in China, most of the calls they received were from women and girls in brothels. Over its history, the organisation says it has rescued 527 young women from forced marriage or brothels.
“The stories the girls told seemed unbelievable,” Brosowski explained. “Except that they all came back telling the same stories. About having to have 20 men every day, and the torture that would happen if they didn’t comply.”
By the time Trang’s mother contacted Blue Dragon, the chance of rescue at the border seemed almost impossible – this is the part of the job that Luong refers to as being “like an American action movie”.
Brosowski keeps the details of these kinds of operations close to his chest for the safety of future trafficked women but, with help from local authorities, the Blue Dragon team managed to rescue Trang from her enslavement and bring her safely to Hanoi.
On March 22, Vietnam shut its doors to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The ruling party closed borders, grounded flights, stopped trains and refused entry to any foreigner who wasn’t a diplomat or official.
China was ground zero for the novel coronavirus, so Vietnam slapped on a temporary travel ban for anyone who has travel history with its neighbour to the north, including those in remote border crossings. If anyone does manage to get through, they have to undergo an immediate 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
This is where Trang ended up, stuck in the Hanoi nether-zone. No longer a prisoner, but still kept far from home, she spent her days quarantined, and for two weeks she spoke and cried down the phone to her mother, before eventually returning to her. As if awakening from a fever dream, neither of them could believe what happened.
While cases of Covid-19 in Vietnam may be few, the impact that preventive public health measures have had will serve a heavy blow to the national economy.
Every industry, from factories to tourism, has felt the pressure of lockdowns, reduced traffic and halted exports. A recent report issued by the International Labour Organization stated that millions of workers are being directly affected by containment measures.
Trang is safe, but as jobs become scarcer in the country, many more people will be searching for work. Now the lockdown has lifted, Luong is heading back to the northern province of Hà Giang to continue working with his organisation’s “Safe and Sound” programme, educating minority people on the potential dangers they’ll face if they decide to head to China once the borders reopen.
Still, life has all but returned to normal throughout the country in recent weeks. Face masks are slowly slipping away and badminton has returned to the streets, though coughs are still met with a worried gaze.
Back in Hanoi, the Blue Dragon team is taking on the pandemic day-by-day. Brosowski explains that, for a foundation that is usually a deft hand at crisis management, all stability has evaporated.
“We’re not even sure what we’ll need tomorrow, let alone in two or three months,” Brosowski says. “As an organisation, we’re doing all we can to try and stay in touch with the people that need help, and try and keep a finger on the pulse.”
The details of Trang’s story were kindly provided by Brosowski’s blog, Life is a Long Story. Blue Dragon is still in desperate need of support. To contribute to their emergency appeal, make a donation here.