Human trafficking in Vietnam: Why raising awareness is not enough


By Dung Phan

When Lan and Nguyen first came to China, they did not know what really happened to them. Lan was tricked and spirited across the border by a friend whom she met online. Nguyen was drugged and smuggled by a friend’s boyfriend. Both were forced into marriage and ended up in the same town in China.

“My desire to go home was indescribable,” Nguyen said. These two girls, like a rising number of others, fell victim to human trafficking – a global trend with deep consequences for business, government and society as a whole. Many other girls aged 14 to 15 years old have been reported to be smuggled into China for work by a neighbour from the same village.

Both Lan and Nguyen said they had heard of trafficking from their teachers in school, but neither believed it could have ever happened to them.

“Everything is about relationships”

Theirs is not a rare story. The freer nature of trade that has altered Vietnam has fuelled the opportunities for traffickers and criminal gangs hungry to exploit desperate jobseekers. However, human trafficking in Vietnam is more than a mere business or crime.

“In Vietnam everything is about relationships, so the traffickers present a very friendly face,” said Michael Brosowski, founder and CEO of Hanoi NGO Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation.

Perpetrators are often relatives or acquaintances of victims and often with the knowledge, consent, or urging of close family members. However, there are some cases when they are strangers who befriend victims and make false promises of good jobs, with high incomes and an easy life.

“Sometimes, they can be our neighbours. They convinced us to follow them to get a job with good income. There are cases that they [traffickers] are even cousins. I know a case when a sister-in-law cheated her husband’s younger sister. The parents [of the victim] thought she [the victim] went to China to work with her sister-in-law,” said one returnee.

The most commonly reported tactic is for young men to lure young women and girls into online dating relationships. After gaining the victims’ trust, they persuade them to move to a new location where they are subsequently subjected to forced labour or sex trafficking.

Raising awareness is not enough

There are many suggestions that there should be more awareness-raising programmes about the risk of being trafficked by a known person. However, it is hard to imagine how a person can be suspicious of a boyfriend who she has known for more than 12 months, or of a family member who she has been living for more than five years. Most of victims think they hardly get into trouble because they believe “relatives and acquaintances will never harm them”.

Studies also show that awareness does not solve the problem of trafficking because it does not solve the core issues behind trafficking: the lack of enforcement of laws, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment.

“This is the first time we can confirm, with empirical evidence, that prevention work relying on raising awareness is not enough,” said John Whan Yoon, Regional Program Manager of World Vision East Asia’s End Trafficking in Persons (ETIP) Program.

The problem with awareness-raising campaigns is that it is relatively easy to list the number of villagers who participate in a program, or to specify the districts where they have taken place. But without proper evaluations and specific outcome measures, “it is not possible to determine whether “awareness” has changed in any meaning way,” wrote Mary Crawford in her book “Sex trafficking in South Asia”.

Activists are worried that if many organisations focus too much on “raising awareness of trafficking”, the anti-trafficking movement then becomes primarily intent on raising a moral panic.

Brosowski argued, “most anti-trafficking work going on in Vietnam right now is confined to awareness raising activities rather than frontline work”. He claimed that the anti-trafficking movement has become too focused on the message rather than direct action to free victims. Money spent on such campaigns like MTV Exit in 2012 could have been better spent on rescuing victims.

A trafficking report by the US Department of State in 2015 – which the Vietnamese government officials considered “not objective” – said border officials in high-risk trafficking areas increased their engagement to investigate trafficking cases, but official complicity remained an impediment to anti-trafficking efforts in Vietnam.

NGOs also report trafficking-related corruption occurs, primarily at the local level, where complicit officials at border crossings accept bribes from traffickers and choose not to intervene on victims’ behalf when “family relationships exist between traffickers and victims”.

Although trafficking-related corruption continues to occur, the government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of officials complicit in human trafficking offenses. The Ministry of Public Security walks a “fine line” between raising public awareness about human trafficking and “presenting a good face that they are in control”, noted Brosowski.

“It’s really sensitive, for example if you work as a provincial authority you don’t want to say there is a lot of human trafficking from your own province,” said Phan Van Ngoc, former Vietnam country director for ActionAid.