Interviews | Society | Southeast Asia

Michael Brosowski on Vietnam’s Trafficking Challenge

Like many businesses, human traffickers quickly recalibrated to the realities of COVID-19.

Michael Brosowski on Vietnam’s Trafficking Challenge

The skyline of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by night.

Credit: Flickr/lab604

The tragic death of 39 Vietnamese citizens in a frozen shipping container in Essex, England in October 2019 awoke the world to the extent of the challenge posed by human trafficking in Vietnam. More than a year later, the challenges remain, and to some extent have even grown, given the economic effects of COVID-19, which, despite Vietnam’s successes in containing the virus, has deprived thousands of work and made them more vulnerable to human traffickers.

In order to understand Vietnam’s trafficking challenges, and where the country might be making progress, Thoi Nguyen spoke to Michael Brosowski AM, co-founder of Blue Dragon, a Vietnam-based non-government organization that helps to combat human trafficking and assist its victims.

I understand that traffickers tend to target the poorest and most vulnerable young people and from rural areas, but do you know and aware that were there any recent cases from urban middle-class backgrounds? Do these victims come from particular group or ethnic minorities?

Ethnic minority communities are frequently targeted by traffickers because they tend to live in remote and isolated areas of the country, where crime may be harder to detect and investigate. People from ethnic minority groups might also have weaker Kinh [Vietnamese] language skills and less access to education, so traffickers are more confident in deceiving them.

However, Blue Dragon has come across many cases of people from middle class and urban backgrounds as well. We’ve rescued university students and some businesswomen from trafficking. We have even been involved in cases where the relatives of government officials have been trafficked, and you would normally assume that they would be quite safe. So the reality is that we should be wary of developing our own stereotypes of who is vulnerable and who is not. Traffickers will consider anyone a target if they see a profit in it.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The media has recently reported on a number of organ trafficking cases in Vietnam. Are you able to tell me about any case studies or know of actual numbers?

Vietnam doesn’t have any official data on the issue. However, since the new Penal Code came into effect in 2018 with Article 154 (Trading and appropriation of human tissue or body parts), Vietnamese authorities have investigated and prosecuted several organ trafficking rings. They tend to operate in major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City where larger hospitals are located. Through groups on social media, especially Facebook, brokers recruit potential victims: generally people in some serious financial difficulty. Brokers help them prepare voluntary organ donation documents and match them with receivers for operations in Vietnam, China, and Cambodia.

We don’t have a lot of experience in this field – much of what we know is from local media – but in July 2020, Blue Dragon provided legal representation for a victim of an organ trafficking case in court. The offender was sentenced to 5 years in prison and had to pay the victim 60 million VND in compensation. The broker sold a kidney himself some years ago and knew how things operated. However, the broker did not pay him 150 million VND as promised and the victim was left with kidney disease.

In January 2019, Vietnamese police arrested an organ trafficking ring who was believed to have brokered for more than 100 people to sell and buy kidneys, but the actual number might be much higher, including 20 people who were preparing to sell kidneys and staying in the ring’s shelter. The ring was caught when they were going back from China to Vietnam with 11 victims. This indicates that there’s some substantial issue there.

Do victims of trafficking receive enough support from the Vietnamese government?

Under the current Law on Trafficking, services and government assistance are provided and the responsibility for their delivery falls to the provinces. Several ministries are involved, and there is a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for coordination of the various agencies, but in practice there are some obstacles to their successful implementation, including simply a lack of knowledge of them. Our experience is that the relevant agencies, like the police and social welfare, are very willing to support survivors of trafficking; there’s not a lack of interest. It’s just the practicalities of how to make it all work.

Blue Dragon has been operating a pilot program in one province where we have focused on improving the implementation of the NRM and what we have found is that with some assistance, it works very well. In fact, it’s now operating without our direct involvement at all; our role was just to iron out the communication issues. So now we are taking our approach to another province to introduce it there as well.

However, on the bigger picture, the Law on Trafficking is now up for a complete revision, and Blue Dragon will contribute to its development. We have some ideas for improving and expanding the assistance available, and I know that various government and U.N. agencies also have thoughts on how to strengthen the services, so I am very hopeful that next year things will look very different. I think it’s saying that the government is calling for the international community, including NGOs, to contribute to provide assistance to victims and to feed into the current legal revision.

It’s worth remembering, too, that many people in Vietnam still live in remote rural areas where access to services is naturally very limited. It is difficult for some provinces which have several cases of trafficking a year to provide professional shelter and reintegration services, when they have so many competing needs and of course a limited budget to work with. I think this is a fairly common problem among developing countries.

Do returned victims of trafficking face any stigma or discrimination by their family, community, and wider society? What problems do they face in Vietnamese society?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Blue Dragon’s experience is that there’s generally not much discrimination by families when their daughters, sisters, or wives return from trafficking; in fact, in nearly all of the cases we deal with, the family has been actively seeking the trafficked person and is thrilled that they are home. But, there are instances where family members don’t understand what happened and think the victim may have done something wrong. These are by far the minority of cases.

Sometimes in the community there’s discrimination, and this is often caused by the trafficker or the trafficker’s family spreading misinformation. We’ve rescued people from small towns and villages where the trafficker was a neighbor; even though the trafficker is arrested, their family may spread rumors or try to defame the victim. This can be incredibly hard to counter, and in some cases the victim chooses to leave the town and go live in a city in order to escape the stigma.

I would also note that this situation has changed in the past 15 years. Previously the stigma and discrimination faced by trafficking survivors was far more substantial. Years of programs by the civil sector, the government and NGOs have contributed to a greater understanding and greater access to information for people. This has all contributed to the decline in widespread discrimination that once may have existed.

To what extent are government officials, including police officers and airport/immigration officials, involved or complicit in cases of trafficking?

Blue Dragon deals with some different forms of trafficking, but primarily the trafficking of Vietnamese girls and women to China where they are sold into forced marriages or brothels. We’ve never come across cases where government officials have been complicit. I know that sometimes there are organizations or individuals who claim it happens; I simply have never seen evidence of it.

One way to think of this is that trafficking in Vietnam is normally not highly organized or run by syndicates. Many cases are opportunistic, or rings operate as very small groups. Such unorganized trafficking is unlikely to have any power or influence at a government level.

We can see that there have been many crimes for which government officials have been prosecuted, including corruption and sexual abuse. The fact that there have been no such prosecutions of officials complicit with trafficking wouldn’t make sense if there really was government-level involvement. (In other words, if they can be caught for other crimes, they could also be caught for this).

There was a significant rise in Vietnamese victims of human trafficking referrals in the United Kingdom in recent years. What happens once recognized victims of trafficking by the U.K.’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) are returned to Vietnam? Are victims of trafficking as identified by the NRM automatically accepted as victims of trafficking by the Vietnamese authorities?

This is a bit difficult to answer, because it’s very hard to know how many people recognized as victims of trafficking in the U.K. have returned to Vietnam.

There are two main issues here. The first is that when people leave Vietnam for the U.K., they are at that time often being smuggled, not trafficked. They are willingly going to the U.K., and know what they are headed into. Some don’t, and they technically are being trafficked, if they are being deceived about what will happen to them once they get there. But they are not all victims of trafficking and it can be difficult for the authorities to properly assess who has been trafficked and who has not.

Those who are identified in the U.K. as victims of trafficking rarely return to Vietnam; they typically apply to stay there. For those who do return, the Vietnamese government might not know that they were identified as a victim of trafficking and they may not disclose it. Even if they do, the difference in the definitions of trafficking between the U.K. and Vietnam may mean they don’t qualify for support here.

So… quite complex!

In its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2020, the U.S. State Department of State claimed that the Vietnamese government “did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period. For the third consecutive year, the government identified significantly fewer victims than the previous year.” As a result, the State Department chose to keep Vietnam on its Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year. Do you agree with its assessment of Vietnam’s progress?

I am personally disappointed that Vietnam is on the Tier 2 Watch List. I believe it deserves a higher ranking than that. To my understanding, one of the key reasons for being on the Watch List is that the number of prosecutions is declining. That’s true, and it’s a problem, but the total number of prosecutions is still far higher than the number of prosecutions in some Tier 1 countries. In fact, as a single organization, each year Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is involved in more rescues of trafficked people than the number of cases in all of Australia, which is Tier 1. So there is a substantial anti-trafficking effort going on in Vietnam which I think the TIP report doesn’t fully acknowledge.

The main problem is that the Penal Code was recently revised and includes some weaknesses which make it hard for police to prosecute traffickers. However, this doesn’t mean the crime is going unpunished; rather, the police are using other relevant laws. As an example, there have been some cases in the past year of underage girls being trafficked from one province to another and forced to work in karaoke bars which are fronts for prostitution. These cases could be included in the country’s trafficking data, but because of issues with the Penal Code they are taken to court under other laws, such as child sexual abuse cases or illegally detaining people, instead. If the government could put together all of the data on trafficking and also crimes related to trafficking, the picture would be much clearer.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic has cast many thousands of people out of work in Vietnam, do you see a rise in potential human trafficking cases, as people seek alternative – and more risky – work online?

Blue Dragon’s analysis of available data indicates that 30 percent of trafficking victims are approached online, so this is a significant issue. Vietnam has an exceptionally high rate of the population being connected to the internet.

COVID-19 has led to more people out of work and willing to travel or take risks to earn money, and that has definitely led to an increase in trafficking. We’ve seen traffickers changing the way they work – for example, selling young girls to karaoke bars – to counter the difficulty of trafficking people across borders at this time. During 2020, Blue Dragon even came across a case of two young Hmong men, from a mountainous area in northern Vietnam, being trafficked to be sold a fishing boat on the south coast. We’ve never encountered such a case before. It’s been popular in business to talk about “pivoting” to survive COVID; traffickers have done some pivoting of their own.

On the other hand, COVID-19 has led to some trafficking cases becoming uncovered or operations interrupted. Closer community work in both China and Vietnam has led to police in both countries identifying victims of trafficking who were previously unknown. I don’t think there’s any data on this, unfortunately, but the total number of trafficking victims Blue Dragon has worked with in the past year has increased significantly compared to previous years.