The first time that I rescued a child from slavery was in 2005. He was a 13-year-old boy who had been trafficked from central to southern Vietnam to sell flowers on the streets of Saigon.
His name was Ngoc, and he had never been to school, had never learned to read or write his own name. His family lived in a tin shack on the beach, and when a woman came to visit them one day offering training and employment for their son, they thought they’d been offered the deal of a lifetime. They had no idea that they were giving up their own child to human traffickers.
Since then, the understanding of the complex nature of trafficking in Vietnam has increased. For example, in 2010 the Vietnamese government finally accepted the phenomenon of “domestic trafficking” for the first time, meaning that the plight of hundreds of young children like Ngoc is finally gaining recognition.
In Vietnam, and across the world, the fight against human trafficking and slavery is becoming the cause of the moment. But here, and around the world, instead of direct action to free victims, the anti-trafficking movement has become too focused on the message. Instead of driving all available funds into physically rescuing children like Ngoc, we are instead becoming fixated on media soundbites and campaigning, such as bringing pop bands to Vietnam to “learn about human trafficking”.
Considerable resources are being ploughed into awareness-raising and campaigning that could be used to rescue children from appalling conditions of slavery. For example, I believe the tens of millions of dollars devoted to MTV Exit could have been better spent on rescuing kids and prosecuting their traffickers.
My organisation, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, has rescued about 300 trafficked children from slavery since 2005. This includes girls and boys forced to work on the streets, in garment factories or in brothels, both in Vietnam and in China.
Our approach is very direct. We identify children as young as 10 who have been taken against their will, or tricked into thinking they are going to training and jobs. We find where they are and we go to get them. Sometimes this involves accompanying police and government officials; sometimes we are on our own.
We’ve driven cars up to brothels at pre-arranged times and waited for girls to make a run for it. We’ve pretended to be “customers” in brothels and made whispered escape plans. We’ve confronted factory owners, faced abuse and violence and stared down furious traffickers who know they stand to lose their income if we have our way.
Once the rescue is complete, we provide for the child’s health, education and accommodation, and we work with the police to go after the traffickers. Every arrest means dozens more children are safe from trafficking.
Yet apart from a handful of post-rescue services such as safe houses and counselling, most anti-trafficking work going on in Vietnam right now is confined to awareness raising activities rather than frontline work. Organisations which claim to fight trafficking and yet sit at a safe distance, preparing campaigns and conferences, are not having an impact where it counts: on the ground.
Organisations are largely unwilling to get involved in rescue work because they consider it too dangerous. Of course there’s an element of danger in all this, but the greater danger is in leaving children enslaved. Human trafficking is a high-stakes criminal activity. There is no risk-free way to stop it.
What’s more, the language being used is a misguided impression of the work they are doing. Many campaigns are using the word “rescue” when in fact they mean “follow-up services”, such as post-rescue accommodation and counselling. These services are undoubtedly important, but it is perhaps giving the misguided impression that these campaigns are doing something that they are not.
My fear is that these campaigns are creating the impression that we are winning the war against the traffickers, this lulling the public into the false impression that something substantial is being done, when in fact slavery is still thriving in the world. Soon people may start to question the anti-trafficking movement, realise it has not delivered what it promised – the end of human slavery – and give up on it. We simply can’t afford to let this happen.
If we really want to end trafficking, we need to get out into the field and rescue the girls, boys and adults who have been trafficked and then ensure that their traffickers are prosecuted and put permanently out of business.
Michael Brosowski is founder of Blue Dragon Foundation, Vietnam. Follow @BlueDragonVN on Twitter