Escaping a fate that's worse than death

Vang Thi D, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, fell in love with a man named Tu that she met on Facebook.

He was handsome, dressed well and had a big motorbike.

Tu invited D and her friend T (16 years old) on a trip to Lao Cai Province. There, the two girls were raped and later sold to China, where men assigned to guard them and look for buyers also violated them repeatedly.

With the help of a sim card hidden in her belly, D managed to inform her family that she had been trafficked to China. Her family informed the local police. Five days later, both girls were rescued after they jumped off the third floor of the building in which they were held captive.

Among the news stories that haunt me long after I read them are those involving human trafficking, because I know that for every person saved there are many more that are not, and are condemned to a life of bonded labour and slavery.

Even after their rescue, the victims' struggles continue, because of the physical and psychological trauma they have suffered, and because re-integration is never easy into a society ridden with various kinds of prejudices.

In Vietnam, news reports about human trafficking are far too frequent and upsetting.

In 2008, a grandmother in Dong Thap Province sold her 3-month-old grandnephew to a broker for VND9 million (S$559). She needed the money to pay off gambling debts. Later, both the broker and the grandmother were sentenced to four years in prison.

A girl in Quang Nam Province who conceived out of wedlock without planning to agreed to let a woman who said she was barren adopt her baby for an unspecified sum. The woman faked papers to send the child to an orphanage that also allows adoption by foreign nationals. Luckily, the real mother discovered the plan in time and informed the police.

The Vietnamese Government has initiated many measures to tackle the human trafficking menace.

It has implemented two five-year (2006-10, 2011-15) national plans against human trafficking.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's parliament, passed the Law on Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking that took effect on January 1, 2012.

Among other things, the law bans internal and cross-border trafficking, labour trafficking and other forms of trafficking including the removal of organs and surrogacy.

Vietnam has ratified the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organised Crime and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Human Trafficking, and strictly complies with obligation under these conventions. It has signed bilateral agreements and undertaken co-operation activities with all neighbouring and regional countries to prevent and fight human trafficking.

Vietnam is also an active member in regional forums such as the Coordinated Mekong Ministerial Initiative against Trafficking (COMMIT), which brings together the six Greater Mekong Sub-region countries in the fight against human trafficking; and the AIPO Forum on Legal Cooperation to Combat Human Trafficking and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, notes the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP).

These efforts have been recognised by international agencies.

"Vietnam has one of the highest conviction rates for traffickers in the world, thanks in large part to training by UNODC (United Nation Office on Drug and Crime)," says a statement on the UNODC website.

In 2012 alone, authorities arrested 719 traffickers, prosecuted 453 and convicted 400 with sentences ranging from 3 to 20 years imprisonment.

However, it is clear that human trafficking has many different forms and is on the rise in Viet Nam despite all the efforts to control and prevent it.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, 507 human trafficking cases with 697 traffickers and 982 victims were uncovered in 2013, a year-on-year increase of four per cent.

As many as 301 cases were detected in the first six months of this year, a 16 per cent increase over the same period last year.

It is estimated that 400-500 trafficking cases involving almost 1,000 victims are discovered in the country each year.

Too gullible?

Nguyen Van Trang, deputy head of the anti-human trafficking division under the Ministry of Public Security's Criminal Police Department, says that poverty, low education and naivety are the main reasons for the high number of people - both male and female - being trafficked in Vietnam.

Although women and children are traffickers' main target, men from some northern provinces have also been trafficked and forced to work.

Some experts have blamed the gender imbalance in China for the surge in trafficking of women to that country.

Between 2008 and June, 2014, nearly 3,000 human trafficking cases have been recorded in Viet Nam, involving 4,700 offences and 5,800 victims. About 90 per cent of the people were victims of external trafficking, mainly to China.

Trafficked persons are mostly poor and can be enticed to go abroad with promises of better living conditions. In some cases, women wanting to leave their family after a conflict have fallen prey to the traffickers.

Experts say that traffickers often act in groups, luring those desperate to improve their living conditions through arranged marriages and recruitment agencies.

Despite all the figures compiled by different agencies in Vietnam, experts warn that human trafficking is often a hidden crime that makes the gathering of statistics difficult.

"Most Vietnamese women marrying foreigners do so expecting it to be a life-changing opportunity, so they will not co-operate with the police," Phan Anh Minh, deputy director of the HCM City Police, said a recent conference that focused on illegal brokering of marriages as a means of human trafficking.

"They even consider (broker) suspects their saviours," he was quoted by Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Police) newspaper as saying.

Statistics from local authorities show that over 25,000 women and children nationwide have been reported missing. A significant per cent of these are suspected to have been trafficked.

While human trafficking is mostly dealt with as a serious crime, it is far too lucrative a trade, especially for organised crime. It is said that human trafficking is the most "rewarding" illegal trade after drugs and arms.

The International Labour Organisation says that forced labour in the private economy alone generates US$150 billion (S$198.3 billion) in illegal profits a year.

Two-thirds of this figure (US$99 billion) comes from commercial sexual exploitation, while a further $51 billion is the result of forced economic exploitation, including domestic work and agriculture. ILO's 2012 report says that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour across the world, including 5.5 million children.

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for the largest number of forced labourers in the world - 11.7 million or 56 per cent of the global total, followed by Africa at 3.7 million (18 per cent) and Latin America with 1.8 million victims (9 per cent).

The UNIAP also contends that the Asia-Pacific region "records by far the highest rates of human trafficking in the world, with Greater Mekong Subregion, comprising Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Yunnan Province in China regarded as containing different tracking hotspots."

Ways to go

Experts have pointed out several deficiencies that dog Viet Nam's efforts, including a lack of conformity between national and international definitions of human trafficking, weak focus on behavioural changes needed, insufficient data, and lack of mechanisms to implement bilateral and multilateral agreements.

Trang said one important step is to improve the living standards for people in remote areas by creating jobs as also conditions for reducing drop-outs from school.

Border management should be strengthened to prevent illegal immigration, he added.

He also called for awareness-raising campaigns in schools were students learn about the impacts of human trafficking as well as tricks used by traffickers in luring victims.

The stakes are high, every victim who has spoken out has stressed.

D, one of the two girls who jumped from the third floor of their "prison" at midnight to escape from their traffickers, said, they were scared, "But considering the shame we had to endureā€¦ we were determined because we thought if we were not able to return home, we would rather die."