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Combating Human Trafficking in Asia

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Battle Against Trafficking Shows Results

“Slashed wages, grueling working hours, ill-treatment, and deception are everyday challenges for a new generation of Vietnamese working overseas,” exclaimed Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, Executive Director of Boat People SOS (BPSOS). Headquartered in Falls Church, Va., Dr. Thang’s organization has received over 20 grants to provide services ranging from immigration assistance to counseling for seniors and tortured patients to rescuing victims of human trafficking.
Dr. Thang was in Harrisburg, Pa., to deliver an impassioned talk on human exploitation for labor and sex, a “modern-day kind of slavery.” It was the third annual anti-trafficking conference organized by the Vietnamese-American Voters Association (VAVA), partnering this time with the International Service Center (ISC) of Harrisburg.
The discussions, which revolved around victims’ rehabilitation and reintegration, took place at Harrisburg Area Community College. Some 100 local officials, professors, students, community-based activists and religious leaders attended.
Using slides, Dr. Thang described the mistreatment of workers at Polar Twin Advance, a Penang-based manufacturer of electronic equipment, and at Esquel Malaysia, a factory producing shirts for brand-name customers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, JC Penny, Lacoste, Banana Republic, and Brooks Brothers.
“These thousands of Vietnamese guest workers are paid substantially less than called for in their contracts,” said Thang. “Their employers lock them in dormitories and withhold their passports. Eighty-five workers who questioned the company’s practices have been dismissed and deported.
Vietnam sends workers abroad as a matter of policy. An article in the June 2000 Asia Times claimed that Vietnam aimed to export half-a-million laborers to countries in Asia, Europe and the Middle East by 2005, and a million by 2010. Dr. Thang said that two-thirds of Vietnam’s goal had already been achieved.
BPSOS takes a three-pronged approach against trafficking, explained Thang. The first is “boots-on-the-ground” intervention through rescue, relief, temporary housing, and legal assistance. The second targets traffickers through international pressure, publicity campaigns, and legal proceedings. The third involves pressing Vietnam and destination countries to enforce and expand their anti-trafficking laws.
In February 2008, BPSOS joined with three other organizations to found the Coalition to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA). It has a permanent operation in Malaysia, and has already produced results. Responding to a CAMSA publicity campaign, the Malaysian government took legal action against Esquel. As a result, BPSOS and Esquel signed a formal agreement whereby Esquel compensated the affected workers, guaranteed a minimum wage, and improved skills training.
CAMSA also went after Taiwanese-owned W&D Apparel in Jordan, which was forcing Vietnamese women to work 16 hours a day and paying them only a third of their guaranteed wages. When more than half of the 600 laborers stopped work, the employer sent in guards and local police, who beat them, and then reduced their food ration.
At CAMSA’s request, Jordan’s Department of Labor intervened, rescuing the injured workers and send them to the hospital. The Coalition then got the government of Vietnam to bring the workers home safely, agreeing not to punish them for breaching their contracts.
For the future, said Thang, BPSOS plans to encourage Asian American lawyers to provide pro bono legal services for victims in the U.S., to draw attention to “anti-trafficking champions” around the world, and to start operating in more countries with large concentrations of guest workers from Vietnam.

What the U.S. is Doing

What happens to victims once they are deported back to Vietnam? Ms. Kelly Ryan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Immigration and Refugees (PRM) at the State Department, said the U.S. tries to ensure their protection.
Ryan cited U.S. government grants of over $30 million in the past ten years to the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and other partners to implement victim-assistance programs throughout the world. Victims, she said, are given help in family tracing, food and accommodation, psychological support and travel costs for returning home as well as job training and placement.
Ryan also called attention to the Trafficking and Protection Act of 2000, which had resulted in an annual Trafficking in Person (TIP) Report to Congress. The report rates over 170 countries on their progress in combating human trafficking.
The latest TIP Report estimates 12.3 million trafficked victims around the globe, making human trafficking the world’s third-largest and fastest growing criminal industry with more than $30 billion a year in transactions worldwide, exceeded only by arms and drug trafficking. About 800,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked annually across national borders, and millions are trafficked within their own countries.

NGOs’ Crucial Role

Non-profit organizations committed to fighting trafficking were well represented at the Conference. Rapha House, for example, has worked in Cambodia since 2003 to rescue girls, providing them with a safe home where they can heal and receive an education. This has been the mission of Stephanie Freed, Rapha House’s USA Director. She told the Conference that she, her two young daughters, and volunteers from her church in Joplin, Mo., make frequent trips to Cambodia.
UNICEF has reported that some 60% of the estimated 45,000 prostitutes in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, are Vietnamese. Over 5,000 Vietnamese children, some as young as five, have been sold or kidnapped or trafficked in Cambodia since the 1990s.
Rapha House helps trafficked Cambodian and Vietnamese children, some as young as seven, to regain their self-esteem and become healthy in mind, body and spirit. The girls are offered a safe environment, protected from the criminals who victimized them. Freed told the Harrisburg forum that she and her staff encourage the girls to help prosecute offenders, but many are reluctant.

Working Inside Vietnam

Humanitarian workers are also active in Vietnam, where children are frequently victimized. Trang Pham Kelly, a Ph.D. candidate at City University of New York, cited a UNICEF officials as saying, in 1997, that the number of street children had reached at least 50,000, most of whom had to work to survive. She also estimated that there were some 20,000 prostitutes under 18 in Vietnam.
Another group of children in Vietnam, said Kelly, moved from rural to urban areas to work in food shops or as helpers in households. They were the new “child slaves,” working day and night without a salary and often ending up in the “red shops,” physically and sexually abused.
Kelly recommended that local social service agencies and NGOs reintegrate these children with education, counseling, and vocational training. She proposed micro-credits so parents could start small businesses and become self-reliant, removing the incentive for them to send their children to work.
Pacific Links, with its head office in California, is another NGO providing vocational training and job placement for young women under 18. One such program is carried out in the southern Vietnamese province of An Giang.
Diep Vuong, Pacific Links’ chair and another presenter at the Conference, said the Mekong Delta was a hotbed for trafficking activities across the Vietnam-Cambodian border. In 2006, she estimated, young Vietnamese girls made up the second largest group of sex workers in Cambodia, up to 33 percent of the total.
Pacific Links partners with two other Vietnamese-American NGOs – the East Meets West Foundation and the International Children Assistance Network – on a counter-trafficking project called the Alliance for the Prevention of Trafficking (ADAPT). It receives funding from USAID and private foundations.
ADAPT’s prevention strategy includes educating and giving employment to young girls as well as raising their awareness of the dangerous risks of trafficking. A scholarship program takes at-risk girls through high school. Five hundred have already graduated.
A second part of the program, said Diep Vuong, “is for these girls to gain a specific vocational skill and one year of support and follow-up until they get a job to sustain themselves.” In this way, 700 had been successfully assisted. Finally, ADAPT had helped reintegrate over 20 trafficked victims into a productive life with medical care, emotional support and job assistance. Next, she said, ADAPT wanted to open a shelter and an employment center for returnees in a neighboring province.

Looking Ahead

After a day of sharing information and discussing the rehabilitation and reintegration of trafficked victims, the participants agreed to form a US-Asia Human Tafficking Network to pursue trafficking issues in Asia.
They also updated anti-trafficking recommendations for the government of Vietnam, urging Vietnam to protect rather than punish victims, prosecute traffickers to the full extent of the law, and cooperate closely with other governments and with NGOs engaged in anti-trafficking activities.