Combating Human Trafficking in Asia
Battle Against Trafficking Shows Results
“Slashed wages, grueling working hours, ill-treatment, and deception are all everyday challenges faced by 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 trafficked victims.
Dr. Thang was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver an impassioned talk on human exploitation for labor and sex, a modern-day kind of slavery. It was the third annual conference that the Vietnamese-American Voters Association (VAVA), partnering with the International Service Center (ISC), has organized as a public awareness forum.
This year’s discussions revolved around the rehabilitation and reintegration of trafficked victims. It took place at the Harrisburg Area Community College, where about 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, Marks & Spencer, Brooks Brothers, and Burberry.
“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. Many survive on rice donated by good Samaritans. Eighty-five workers who questioned the company’s practices were dismissed and deported.
BPSOS takes a three-pronged approach to counter these trafficking practices, explained Thang. The first is “boots-on-the-ground” intervention through rescue, relief, temporary housing, and legal assistance. The second targets the 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.
To implement this comprehensive approach, 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 initiated legal action against Esquel. As a result, BPSOS and Esquel formally signed a Memorandum of Understanding according to which Esquel agreed to compensate all affected workers. The MOU also mandated a guaranteed minimum-wage system in conjunction with the pay rate and improved its skill-base training.
CAMSA also brought pressure to bear on Taiwanese-owned W&D Apparel in Jordan, which was forcing Vietnamese women to work 16 hours a day and paying them only one third of their guaranteed wages. When more than half of the 600 workers stopped work, the employer sent in guards and local police, who severely beat them and reduced their food ration.
At CAMSA’s request, Jordan’s Department of Labor intervened to rescue the injured wokers and send them to the hospital. The Coalition further pressured the government of Vietnam to bring the workers home safely, agreeing not to punish them for breaching their contracts.
In 2008, BPSOS aims to elevate CAMSA’s anti-trafficking efforts to a higher level through: 1) recruiting and training Asian American lawyers to provide pro bono legal services for victims in the U.S., 2) building a network of anti-trafficking champions across the the U.S. and beyond, and 3) establishing additional operations in countries with large concentrations of guest workers from Vietnam.
United States’ Intervention
What happens to the trafficked victims once they are deported back to Vietnam? Ms Kelly Ryan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Population, Immigration and Refugees (PRM) at the U.S. Department of State, described a protection program for many of them.
Ryan said that the U.S. government had given 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 were given help in family tracing, food and accommodation, psychological support and travel costs for returning home as well as job training and placement.
Congress passed the Trafficking and Protection Act in 2000 creating the Trafficking in Person (TIP) Report, rating in tiers government respone in over 170 countries based on their level of combating human trafficking.
It was estimated that there were 12.3 million trafficked victims around the globe, the world’s third largest and fastest growing criminal industry, accounting for more than $30 billion a year business worldwide, exceeded by arms and drug dealings. According to the 2008 TIP Report from the U.S. Department of State, approximately 800,000 mostly women and children, are trafficked annually across national borders, not including millions trafficked within their own countries.
An article in the Asia Times in June 2000 claimed that theVietnamese Ministry of Labor and Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) aimed to export half-a-million laborers in 2005, which it has reached. It also said that Vietnam wanted to increase its work force export to one million in 2010 to developing countries in Asia, Europe, Middle East and mid-Atlantic regions as well as to the U.S. Dr. Thang said that two-third of Vietnam’s goal has already been achieved.
NGOs’ Crucial Role
Rapha House, a non-profit organization, has worked in Cambodia since 2003 to rescue girls, providing them with a safe home where they can heal and receive an education that will allow them to make good choices for their future. This was the mission of Stephanie Freed, Rapha House’s USA Director. She said that she, her two young daughters, and volunteers from her church in Joplin, MO, make frequent trips to Cambodia.
They visit the Rapha House shelter and see that the basic needs of trafficked Cambodian and Vietnamese children, as young as seven, are being met. The goal is to help the girls regain their self-esteem and become healthy in mind, body and spirit. The girls are offered a safe and secure environment, well protected from the criminals who victimized them in the first place.
Freed told the Harrisburg forum that she and her staff believe in encouraging the girls in their care to help prosecute offenders, though many are reluctant to do so. She was passionate in her accounts of the young women she has assisted in Cambodia the past five years.
UNICEF has reported that some 60% of the estimated 45,000 prostitutes in Cambodia’s capital city, Pnom 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.
Trang Pham Kelly, a Ph.D. candidate at City University of New York, told the forum that Dr. Rima Salad, UNICEF representative in Vietnam, had stated 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.
At the conference, Kelly spoke of another group of children in Vietnam who moved from rural to urban areas to work in food shops or as helpers in households. They were the new “child slaves” who worked day and night, never got a salary, and often end up in the “red shops,” physically and sexually abused.
Kelly recommended that local and national social service agencies and NGOs reintegrate these children by giving them the education they needed, as well as counseling and vocational training. She proposed that their parents receive micro-credit to start small businesses and become self-reliant, removing the incentive for them to send their children to work.
Working Inside Vietnam
Pacific Links, with its head office in California, is another NGO providing vocational training and job placement for young women under 18. It carries out one such program at its branch in the southern Vietnamese province of An Giang.
Diep Vuong, Pacific Links’ chair, another presenter at the conference, explained that the Mekong Delta has been a hotbed for trafficking activities across the Vietnam-Cambodian border. In 2006, it was estimated that young Vietnamese girls made up the second largest group of sex workers in Cambodia, up to 33 percent of the total sex-worker population.
Pacific Links has partnered 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 partial funding from USAID and private foundations.
Diep and her partners created ADAPT’s prevention strategy, which includes educating and giving employment to young girls as well as raising their awareness of dangerous risks of trafficking. They devised a three-pronged approach, including a scholarship program for at-risk girls through high school. Five hundred have already graduated.
The second formula, she continued, “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 young women have been successfully assisted. The last prong is to reintegrate trafficked victims into a productive life with medical care, emotional support and job assistance. Over 20 returnees have been helped.” Her wish was for ADAPT to open a shelter and an employment center for returnees in a neighboring province.
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.
The Conference also updated the following anti-trafficking recommendations for Vietnam: 1) governments and NGOs should coordinate local, regional and national programs to alert communities to the dangers of trafficking; 2) improve and expand educational and economic opportunities for vulnerable groups, 3) protect victims who must be rescued, repatriated, rehabilitated, and reintegrated into their families and communities, 4) order law enforcement agencies to vigourously prosecute traffickers, fight public corruption, recognize and interdict traffickers, 5) train personel to identify and direct victims to appropriate care, 6) encourage the media to not only educate the public but also disseminate more information on the perpatrators and the corrupt systems within which they operate, and finally 7) cooperate more closely with international organizations to deny traffickers legal sanctuary and facilitate their extradition for prosecution.