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Vietnam battles sex trafficking along China’s border

July 1, 2014 at 6:26 PM EDT
China is like a giant magnet to neighboring Vietnam, luring workers with higher wages and transportation to other countries. But many women are taken to China involuntarily to be sold into marriage or to work in brothels. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on the human trafficking across the long land border and the efforts to stop it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A changing Asia has also complicated the relationship between China and Vietnam. They have recently battled over drilling for oil in waters claimed by both countries, and they share a long land border that has been the scene of human trafficking.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report. A version of this story aired on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.” And it’s part of his Agents for Change series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The communist party flag still flies high in Vietnam. But on the ground consumerism and capitalism are thriving, at least in cities like Ho Chi Minh, the former Saigon, and the capital, Hanoi, which have grown rapidly.

FLORIAN FORSTER, International Organization for Migration: You see an enormous amount of mobility within the country, rural, urban migration happening at a large scale.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, Florian Forster of the U.N.’s Organization for Migration says the strong economic growth of recent years has not been enough to absorb millions of young entrants to the job market in this nation of 90 million.

FLORIAN FORSTER: We have currently about 400,000 Vietnamese migrant workers being deployed abroad at any time, with 80,000 leaving every year, and whenever you have migration, which is a positive driver and a positive force, then you have also the exploitation and abuse coming with it. And that leads to trafficking.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The heart of both the sex and labor trafficking problem and much of Vietnam’s poverty lies in the rural hinterland, still home to two-thirds of the population.

This is Vietnam’s back door, the rugged, mountainous, remote region along the northern border with China. It’s a porous border through which thousands of Vietnamese women, children, and some men are trafficked each year. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, and that’s just one of the challenges in getting a handle on this complex problem.

China is a giant magnet next door. Its wages are higher, and it is a transit point to other countries. But many women are taken to China involuntarily. Some are forced into marriage. China has a shortage of brides because of its one-child policy and its cultural preference for male children. Other Vietnamese women are forced into prostitution.

California-based Diep Vuong, originally from Vietnam, founded the Pacific Links Foundation, which helps victims who’ve managed to escape.

DIEP VUONG, Pacific Links Foundation: The girls that we see, they are given a choice: Do you want to marry somebody or do you want work in the brothels?

And one of the girls told us that — she said, you know, they told us if we work in brothels, we’ll be staying near the border. And so some girls say, I would rather stay here because it’s closer to Vietnam and that may be able to run back.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Vuong brought me to visit 23-year-old Lan, who was able to run back.

LAN (through interpreter): I don’t know where I was taken. We were in the car ride for a day, and when they wouldn’t let me out of the car, then I realized that I had been tricked.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Hers is a classic story of how traffickers prey on desperately poor people.

Lan was working on a road-building crew. It’s backbreaking work in hot, stifling weather, and it’s to her work site that the recruiter came with a better offer to harvest cinnamon for higher wages. She and two others took the bait, but Lan was the only one who managed to return to her village. The other two have not been heard from since.

Lan said she was held in a home across the border in China before being taken to a place she thought was Beijing, where she encountered the police.

LAN (through interpreter): When we got to Beijing, there were a lot of policemen around, so I ran to them and asked them to help me. They showed me a computer screen with a lot of flags on it, and I was able to show them that I was from Vietnam.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But after clarifying a few questions, Vuong determined Lan wasn’t describing Beijing, but, rather, an airport. She’d never seen one before.

DIEP VUONG: You see airport pictures all the time, the Malaysian Airlines story and all that, and then you come across people who are actually at the airport and don’t even know that they’ve been at the airport.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Lan was fortunate in one critical way. Her family welcomed her back. She’s since married and has a 1-year-old son. Often, victims must deal with stigma, shame, and rejection from their families.

HUE (through interpreter): My mother doesn’t care to see me anymore. In my village, there were some young women who had returned from China, and I remember looking down on them, and that’s how I thought people were looking at me.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Hue and Phuong — we were asked to shield the identities of trafficking victims — were vulnerable to peer pressure, and seemingly compelling requests for help.

HUE (through interpreter): There was this boy, he lived below us, and he told me that his brother had a bad accident in China. And he asked me if I wanted to go with him to take care of his brother.

PHUONG (through interpreter): My cousin told me he was dumped by his girlfriend and really depressed, and asked if I would go and hang out with him.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But their friends lied to them. Each teenager was handed over to members of shadowy trafficking networks.

HUE (through interpreter): We were told that if we didn’t agree to be wives, we would be sold into brothels.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Phuong agreed. Hue did not and was sold to a brothel, where she says she was held for several days, but not yet put to work.

HUE (through interpreter): They were waiting to find a client for me. Luckily, there was a police raid, and because we didn’t have papers, the police took us away.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Each tells harrowing escape stories, how chance encounters with police officials and kind strangers helped get them home. In many cases, Vuong says victims become traffickers.

DIEP VUONG: The Ministry of Public Security had said that they — of all the people they arrested as trafficker, 60 percent of them had been trafficking victims themselves.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Vuong described one encounter she had with a 17-year-old who was severely beaten in captivity and released on condition that she recruit more young women, which she agreed to do.

DIEP VUONG: And she said, well, I told them that, you know, they will work at this restaurant, and so she didn’t say that they would have to serve as prostitutes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So why would she feel compelled to feed this trade then, if she was by now free?

DIEP VUONG: I think — well, I think that — I don’t know. Do you ask of the abused woman who’s abused by her husband why she goes back to her husband, or why she let her husband beat up on their children, knowing that — what the harm she suffered is terrible enough?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For young women unable to return to their families, several dozen each year, Vuong’s group provides safe haven. They learn basic life skills like cooking and can complete their schooling. About 4,000 have received scholarships with money Vuong raises through private donations.

That enables them to go to school and, where possible, train for job skills. Here, one partner is another nonprofit called Know One Teach One, or KOTO. Its restaurants and culinary schools in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi train disadvantaged youth.

Founder Jimmy Pham says Vietnam is finally taking the first steps to deal with problems like trafficking.

JIMMY PHAM, KOTO International: Five, 10 years ago, this problem wasn’t acknowledged at all. Now you see that through the work of Pacific Links and KOTO where you see a lot of visibility, I guess, and it’s a start. It’s not somewhere where we would like it to be.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The government has passed anti-trafficking laws in recent years. In 2013, Vietnam arrested nearly 700 alleged traffickers and identified some 900 rescued victims. However, most experts agree there are deficiencies in both the laws and their enforcement, and that those numbers represent a small fraction, Vuong says a 10th perhaps of the true figures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.