Millions of human beings are bought and sold into forced labour around the world each year. It is estimated half of this number are in the Asia-Pacific region. So prevalent has people trafficking become it is now the third most profitable criminal activity after illegal drugs and arms dealing, worth around US$10 billion annually. As with many developing countries, many of the most vulnerable in Vietnam fall victim to people trafficking each year. By Brett Davis. Photos by Fred Wissink.

You and your family are desperately poor, there is little or no work available and the future looks like nothing so much as a tightening noose. Things are worse if you are in debt, or perhaps a family member is ill. Then, as if fate has suddenly decided to deliver a little good fortune your way, a person arrives on your doorstep with the offer of a well paying job.

What do you do? Like so many people in such dire circumstances, you would likely seize the opportunity with both hands. It is an offer many men, women and children in impoverished areas of Vietnam accept, but which ultimately leads them down the rabbit hole and into a world where they become a tradable commodity.

The trafficking in people, modern-day slavery, essentially, is a scourge the world over and unfortunately Vietnam is not exempt from the problem. There are other factors apart from poverty that play a role in feeding this most debasing trade, but there are also efforts being made by governments, NGOs and individuals to combat human trafficking.

Forced labour in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture and prostitution, both inside Vietnam and across international borders, are some of the main markets for trafficked people. There are also markets for women sold as wives to men in countries such as China and Korea. There was even a high-profile case in 2011 in which authorities uncovered a surrogacy ring in Bangkok where several Vietnamese women were tricked into being surrogates. They were artificially inseminated in order to provide babies for couples in Taiwan.

Stories about the Vietnamese authorities breaking up trafficking rings appear fairly regularly in the local press. The government has taken steps to strengthen the legal framework with the passing of an anti-trafficking statute in March last year and the drawing up of a five-year national action plan on trafficking.

Human Trafficking in South East Asia Millions of people are bought and sold into forced labour around the world AsiaLIFe looks into human traffickingThere is still much to be done to combat human trafficking in Vietnam, as was noted in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 which ranked it as a Tier 2 Watch List country. The report stated, “The Government of Vietnam does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.”

The report also noted that the Vietnamese Women’s Union, in partnership with NGOs, operates a number of shelters in the country’s largest urban areas to provide counselling and vocational training to female sex trafficking victims. They also have smaller temporary shelters at some of the busiest border crossings.

Pacific Links is an NGO that works to prevent trafficking and rehabilitate victims through their ADAPT program. They run two shelters, one in Lao Cai province near the Chinese border, the other in An Giang province in the Mekong Delta. Adapt reintegration program manager Phuong Thao says many of the girls who end up in prostitution or sold as wives are trafficked by someone close to them. “It can be a friend of a friend,” she says.

The lure is usually the offer of a good job in a café or hair salon, earning enough money so they can support their families. However, once they reach their destination the truth is revealed. Thao says girls in this situation are often kept locked in a room and guarded so they cannot escape. Also common is the use of dept bondage.

“Money for transportation, for food, for accommodation is all put on a bill that they owe the employer,” Thao says. “They force them to pay for makeup and clothes that are very fancy and the boss will say, ‘You cannot leave until you work to pay off your debt.’”

Some NGOs have girls who have returned home after being trafficked referred to them by local authorities. At other times they will be more proactive and try to track down the child and return them home with the cooperation of local authorities and international organizations such as Interpol and the Red Cross.

The Blue Dragon Foundation has rescued more than 160 children trafficked to work mainly in the garment industry for little or no pay and in terrible conditions. Most of these children come from villages or communes in the Hue area. Blue Dragon founder Michael Brosowski says once they have written permission from parents who want their children returned, they have to move quickly.

“The traffickers usually have friends in the area and they will pass the word on and the kids will be moved,” he says.

They typically spend about 36 hours in HCM City on these missions and are assisted by the Hue Red Cross and local leaders to negotiate the children’s return.

“It is great because these leaders who come with us on these missions then become advocates [for the fight against trafficking] back in the community,” he says. While Brosowski believes poverty is a major factor in making communities vulnerable to trafficking he thinks there are other parts to the equation. “It is also to do with attitudes,” he says.

It is a sentiment echoed by Caroline Ticarro-Parker, founder of the Catalyst Foundation, which conducts community programs in Kien Giang province to help fight human trafficking.  She says the traffickers offer people an immediate, short-term solution to their money problems, but there are also deeply entrenched attitudes towards daughters and a sense of obligation to family that exacerbates the situation.

“We have had many, many counseling sessions where mum and dad say, ‘well, she’s a girl, so what?’ So, there is no value to the girl, there is no value to the family,” she says. “The sense of obligation from a girl’s point of view is unimaginably strong. We can’t break that. We met girls two or three years ago that would absolutely do it if mum and dad said this is what you have to do.”

When the girls do return home it can be an uphill battle to reintegrate them into the community. They have been traumatized by their experiences. Thao says some of the girls they take in at the ADAPT shelters have physical and psychological injuries.

“A lot of times at first they do not want to say anything, they are very closed off. Others are wild, they don’t want to do anything you say. They don’t trust anybody,” she says.

“Some of them come back with scars. The actual physical damage we don’t see as much because they have been in Cambodia, they have been waiting for paperwork abroad for a while. Most of the physical wounds have healed but we see the scars. The most significant though is the mental trauma.”

She says after about a year the girls are pretty much back to normal, particularly when they go back to school. However there can be a lingering stigmatism for these girls.

“People talk, people gossip,” Thao says. “Sometimes the girl won’t tell people what she was doing in Cambodia, but she is working in a nail salon so people will think, ‘Oh she’s been in Cambodia and now she is working in a nail salon, I don’t want her to do my nails because she is probably sick.’”

While all these efforts are being made to assist the victims, even more is being done to strengthen the most vulnerable communities to protect people from falling into the hands of traffickers in the first place.

Organisations like Pacific Links, Blue Dragon Foundation and the Catalyst Foundation conduct a range of programs to raise awareness about the dangers of human trafficking, assist children to continue their education, and provide meaningful opportunities to break the poverty cycle.

It is a task that must seem insurmountable, even at the best of times. To Michael Brosowski, while the issue is a complex one, the way forward is clear. “The goal is simple: we want kids home and in school,” he says.

Caroline Ticarro-Parker says raising awareness among communities and those most at risk will help abolish human trafficking, just as slavery was abolished. She says, “The reason we keep going is because we know this generation of girls are going to grow up and learn they cannot be bought.”

Human Trafficking in South East Asia Millions of people are bought and sold into forced labour around the world AsiaLIFe looks into human traffickingLien

Lien*, a 13-year-old girl, was thrilled when her uncle invited her mother, older sister and younger sister to celebrate the New Year’s holiday in China, promising that he would pay for everything. Once they arrived in China, they were met by two men. Lien knew that they had been sold when her uncle accepted money from the men and hid it in his shoe, and the men told them that they could no longer go home. They were then taken to a house and sold to the homeowners.

For a couple of weeks, Lien stayed in the house with her mother and sisters, and each day the homeowners would bring different men over and insist that Lien accept one of them as her husband, but she kept refusing. Eventually, her mother and sisters were sold to be wives, and Lien was forced  to wed a 30-year-old man. He came from a poor family, so she performed fieldwork and household chores, and cried daily, thinking of how to run away.

She eventually hatched a plan with her older sister, who had been sold to a nearby family, to escape.

Using grocery money they had saved, they hired a taxi to take them to the police station, lying that they had paperwork to fill out there. They then informed the police about the location of their mother and younger sister, and all four were returned to Vietnam. Their uncle was later arrested and is now serving a jail sentence for human trafficking.


Canh* is the oldest of five siblings. She attended school until she was 14, then quit in order to work in the fields with her mum and dad, tending to the rice paddies and raising vegetables to feed their family.

Canh’s uncle and aunt also lived nearby, and when Canh was 17 years old, they invited several women from the village to China, saying they could all earn money by becoming day labourers. In all, her aunt and uncle brought five young women from the village to China, including Canh’s cousin and aunt.

Once in China, the five women were separated and sold to be wives. For three months, Canh lived with a man who was nearly 40 years old. She thought of her family and home on a daily basis. One day, after the man left for work, Canh ran away, eventually meeting up with her cousin, and they hid together. Unbeknownst to them, one of the five women had been able to escape early on, and notified the police, who were searching for the remaining four women. So when Canh and her cousin finally found a policeman, he recognized who they were and brought them to the border station.

Canh’s uncle and aunt were arrested on charges of human trafficking. He committed suicide, and she is currently serving a prison sentence.

Canh has been living at the PALS reintegration shelter for about six months, and is learning how to sew. She would like to return to her hometown and sew Hmong clothing for sale in the village markets.


Mai* grew up in a village in northern Vietnam with her parents and two younger brothers. A couple of years ago, Mai’s friend had a suitor who invited the two young women to visit Lao Cai for a few days of sightseeing. He lead them across a river to a friend’s house that, unbeknownst to Mai or her friend, was over the border in China.

Three days later, another two women were brought to the house, and tearfully admitted to Mai that they had been sold into prostitution. It wasn’t until this point that Mai realized she and her friend had also been sold. She attempted to run away, but was caught and beaten by her captors. Shortly after, Mai’s friend and the two new young women were taken away; to this day, Mai doesn’t know where they are.

Mai suffered regular beatings for refusing to become a prostitute. Her captors threatened to sell her to become a villager’s wife deep in the jungle, where she wouldn’t be able to escape. After a few weeks, Mai finally pretended to agree to work as a prostitute, knowing her captors would then give her money to buy new clothes. Early the next morning, she left for the market, and once on the road, she ran as far as she could, then used the money to pay for a taxi to the police station.

Human Trafficking in South East Asia Millions of people are bought and sold into forced labour around the world AsiaLIFe looks into human traffickingThu

Thu* lived with her parents and younger sister, and attended school until 9th grade. When she was 15, her father and mother separated, and her mother took the two young girls with her to Cambodia.

In Cambodia, her mother would leave for work every morning, leaving her daughters at home.

During the day, many people would stop by, trying to collect on debts that her mother owed. When Thu and her sister attempted to find work to earn money, they were tricked and sold to a brothel.

Thu and her sister were forced to work in the brothel for a month, before the Interpol conducted a raid and rescued more than 10 young women from the building. They were taken to a shelter in Cambodia, where they stayed for a year. During that time, Thu studied English and computer skills, and even became fluent enough in Khmer to finish 4th grade in Cambodia.

Upon their return to Vietnam, Pacific Links has assisted Thu and her sister for the past four years. They recently graduated from 12th grade, and both studied sewing during the summers, so that they could earn money while in school. Currently, Thu is attending a vocational school for tourism, while her sister is studying medicine.

Courtesy of the Pacific Links Foundation

* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality. 

Terror at Sea

Human trafficking is not limited to the trade of women and children. Throughout Asia, labour trafficking is big business. Ellie Dyer finds out more.

Lured away from their homes with promise of good jobs, men across Asia are being sold into slavery to work in plantations, factories and the now-notorious Thai fishing industry.

Such labourers face the risk of being drugged and forced to work around the clock – all for little to no pay. Some are reportedly murdered when they are too exhausted to work. The lucky ones who manage to return home tell horrific stories of abuse.

“I was told by men that they witnessed other men on board being killed and thrown overboard by the captain or other officers when those fishermen could no longer work,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who has interviewed both Burmese and Cambodian labourers used as forced labour at sea.

“The conditions are as bad as the human imagination can conjure up. The Thai fishing industry uses trafficked labour in a systematic and pervasive manner, employing a business model that is premised on forcing men and boys to work for months and years round the clock, with little rest, dangerous working conditions, and the constant menace of physical abuse,” he adds.

The problem is one that stretches across the globe. Fishermen have been known to flee from boats in the waters of eastern Indonesia, ports in Sarawak, Malaysia, or even farther afield – in Yemen and Somalia. In Cambodia, local media reports have told of whole villages being emptied of young men, who have been trafficked abroad with the hope of supporting their families financially.

The Thai government is implementing its human trafficking law, according to the United States’ 2011 trafficking in persons report, but rights groups say more must be done to hold those responsible for such human rights abuses accountable.

Robertson adds that global consumers should demand that governments and importers raise concerns over products, such as Thai seafood, that can “contain the blood, sweat and in some cases lives of trafficked men and boys.”

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