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Human Trafficking in Vietnam

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Globalization of Trafficking in Persons (TIP)

Trafficking of humans for labor and sex has been practiced for thousands of years all around the world.  European, African, Middle Eastern and Asian upper classes bought slaves for work exploitation and physical abuse.  Inumerable ancient paintings and books as well as modern films and testimonies show this horrific trade.

Up until the mid-20th century, outcries from civil society and ever stricter laws forced oppressive regimes and rich individuals to moderate their behavior.  But a resurgence of so-called modern-day slavery has surfaced again in the 21st century.  This form of human trafficking is the world’s third largest and fastest-growing criminal industry, accounting for more than $25 billion a year in business worldwide, exceeded only by arms and drug dealings.

The National Center for State Courts reported in 2005 that “up to 900,000 people are being bought and sold across international borders every year, and millions are trafficked within their own countries.”  The same year, Pacific News Service wrote, “According to sources from UNICEF and Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice as well as other groups, as many as 400,000 Vietnamese women and children have been trafficked overseas, most since the end of the Cold War.  That’s around 10 percent of trafficked women and children worldwide.”

Among them, the majority are female teenagers and many are children, some as young as five.  They are entrapped by false promises of adoption, job opportunities, or marriages in foreign countries.

            Human trafficking impacts on victims’ human rights and freedoms, causes physical and emotional suffering, and undermines the security of all nations involved.  It is closely connected with drug trafficking, money laundering and document forgery.  Many governments are unable to combat trafficking because of lack of financial and human resources.  Moreover, bribes paid to law enforcement, immigration, and judicial officials prevent many governments from battling corruption from within government ranks.

            The reasons for trafficking on the supply side include poverty, lack of employment opportunities, organized crime, violence and discrimination against women and children, political instability and armed conflict.  The demand factors include the sex industry and the growing desire for cheap and exploitable labor.

            Sex tourism and child pornography facilitated by the Internet have created a vast market of consumers for instant and undetectable worldwide transactions.  UNICEF’s Kul Gautun told an International Symposium on Trafficking of Children in Tokyo in 2003, “In Asia and the Pacific alone, more than 30 million children have been traded over the last three decades.”

            On the health level, forced substance abuse, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS (71,500 cases reported in Vietnam in 2005 by USAID), and isolation and domination by traffickers leave permanent psychological and physical scars on victims.  According to the most recent State Department report on the  subject, field research in nine countries concluded that 60 to 75 percent of women in prostitution had been raped, 70 to 95 percent physically assaulted, and 68 percent met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.  Recovery takes years, even decades – often, the damage can never be undone.

            Lack of education and productive personal development reduce these victims’ future economic opportunities and increase their tendency to remain in poverty.  They find themselves stigmatized and ostracized after their recovery and their return to their communities.  Loss of family and community support networks contributes to the breakdown of social structures.  A brutal feature of this slave trade is that the victims are frequently bought and sold many times over, often initially by family members.

Export of Workers from Vietnam

The Inter-Press Service says that in 2000, Vietnam’s unemployment rate was 7.4 percent while the under-employment rate was 38.8% for a population of 80 million people, 70 percent of whom lived in rural areas.  At that point, the labor force of 38.6 million (between the ages of 15 and 60) was equally male (19.46%) and female (19.19%).  Two out of three Vietnamese were under 35.

            Per capita income had reached $400 by 2000, and monthly minimum wages ranged from $19 in state-owned companies as opposed to $45 in foreign-owned industries.  The poverty rate was 18.3% in urban areas and 44.9% in rural areas.  Large-scale, unplanned migration from the countryside to the cities was rising.  In the same period, the International Labor Organization reported that 995,500 children under 18 were economically active, and UNICEF said that there were 50,000 street children (no shelter or jobs) in Vietnam.

            Hanoi has responded to Vietnam’s high and growing rate of unemployment by exporting labor to wealthier parts of the world.  Destinations include Laos, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Libya, with many more sent to Germany and the Middle East.  One reason for this policy seems to be the remittances that workers send back to Vietnam.  Another may be the government’s desire to lower the number of unemployed at home.

            Vietnam’s practice of exporting labor has brought with it abuses, both in the areas of domestic violence and of human trafficking.  Young and unskilled people have been sent abroad to work in construction, sea transport, seafood processing, health care, agriculture, textiles, and as domestic laborers.  An article in the Asia Times in June 2000 claimed that the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) aims to export half-a-million laborers in 2005 and wants to increase its work force export to one million in 2010.

Those levels are not being reached, but the numbers are very large nonetheless.  According to Vietnam News (VNS) in March 2007, Nguyen thi Hoai Thu, director of the National Assembly Committeee on Social Affairs, said, “The country’s success in reducing poverty is largely the result of Vietnamese guest workers abroad.  The 400,000 workers working in 40 countries and territories abroad have been earning  huge sums.  Vietnamese laborers and managers can be found all over the world – in Japan, Malaysia, parts of the Middle East and in Europe and North America.”

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the export of labourers has become an important source of revenue in hard currency for Vietnam in recent years, bringing in about $1.5 billion each year from these overseas workers.

In 2007, Vietnam’s Department of Overseas Labour Management authorized four businesses to send laborers to Japan, Qatar, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia as well as newer venues – the U.S., Australia and Canada.  Its task is to reach the target of one million in 2010 by sending 80,000 to 100,000 workers abroad each year.

Currently, an estimated 200,000 Vietnamese men and women are reportedly working in Taiwan.  They are forced to work overtime and to endure accidents in the work place without knowing their labor rights  in a country in which they do not speak the language.  Most Vietnamese “brides” sold to Taiwanese men end up working  without pay as domestic servants, and many are sold as prostitutes.

Vietnamese wanting to work in a foreign country must be licensed by the government, and over 140 state-owned labor export brokers exist for that purpose.  They charge each person $3,500 in health-clearance and police fees plus a 10 percent value-added tax on earnings overseas.  In addition, the brokers receive a fixed 12 percent of the value of the contracts.  These brokers have reportedly overcharged, sometimes up to $10,000 in debt bondage, and misled applicants while exposing them to overwork, beatings and sexual abuse.

            Furthermore, cases documented and reported by the Vietnamese and international press reveal that Vietnamese women have been sold as mail-order brides and forced into prostitution in China.  In 1991, the number was reportedly 10,000, increasing to over 25,000 nowadays.  In addition, male children have been sold for adoption to Chinese families with no sons.

            In 2000, it was estimated that there were 300,000 to 600,000 Vietnamese prostitutes in Vietnam.  In 2003, young Vietnamese women were posted on eBay Taiwan’s website for auction, with a “starting price” of $5,400. The following year, some Vietnamese women were displayed as models sitting in windows to be sold to passers-by at a Trade Fair in Singapore.

ActionAid quoted a UNICEF report that approximately 60% of the estimated 45,000 prostitutes in Cambodia’s capital city, Pnom Penh, are Vietnamese.  Over 5,000 Vietnamese children as young as five   have also been sold or kidnapped and trafficked in Cambodia.  In the view of international observers, trafficking from Vietnam is a growing problem.

Response from International Entities

            In 2000, the UN adopted the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and two Palermo protocols — the protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children; and the protocol against the smuggling of migrants by land, sea, and air.  In the U.S., it was estimated that there were 14,000 to 20,000 persons being trafficked into the country every year.  To respond to that trend, Congress passed the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act and required the State Department to report to Congress each year on international trafficking.  Several states in America have written their own laws to address human trafficking within their borders, criminalizing forced labor and sex trafficking.

            After the UN Convention on Trafficking was promulgated, hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in many countries were established to collaborate with official institutions on projects to combat human trafficking.  The United Nations and over 150 countries have signed treaties to protect citizens from this new form of slave trade, and programs to provide public awareness, protection, and reintegration of victims have been implemented.

            In 2005, the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings was adopted.  Of the 46 members of the Council, 31 have signed and ratified the Convention.  The same year, an anti-trafficking memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Cambodia and Vietnam was signed.  In 2006, China and Vietnam signed a similar MOU.  In 2007, Vietnam signed such MOUs with Laos and Thailand.   The MOUs called for increased cooperation on border secirity, identification, and prosecution of trafficking cases.  They also required the state to protect the rights of victims and encourage their employment.

During that period, the UN Inter-Agency Program on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Subregion and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) worked with various governments in Southeast Asia to ratify the UN Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children.  UNODC also helped strengthen their judicial systems, including legal and law enforcement institutions, as well as train officials from Ministries of Security and Justice, border guards, armies and police on the protection of victims and prosecuting of traffickers.

Since 2003,  the Office of trafficking in Persons (TIP) at the State Department has designated Vietnam a “Tier 2 government, which is a “source, transit and, to a lesser extent, destination country for forced labor and sexual exploitation.”  Tier-2 countries are those whose governments do not fully comply with the Act’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into  compliance.  The Department’s minimum standards are generally based on the “three Ps”   – prosecution, protection, and prevention.

            The 2008 Report says that “Vietnam does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.  The government stepped up prosecutions and strengthened cross-border cooperations on sex trafficking with Cambodia, China, Laos and Thailand to rescue victims and arrest traffickers.”

            Vietnam’s National Steering Committee reported that in 2007, police arrested 606 traffickers and prosecuted 178 cases, obtaning 339 individual convictions, sentencing violators from 15 to 20 years in prison.  Police also disrupted a Korean trafficking ring that recruited Vietnamese for marriages, rescuing 118 women.  The Ho Chi Minh People’s Court convicted six Vietnamese with sentences ranging from 5-12 years for trafficking 126 women to Malaysia under the guise of a matchmaking agency.

            Furthermore, the Vietnam Women’s Union and international organizations IOM and UNICEF continue training the Border Guard Command and local Vietnamese authorities to identify, process, and help victims, not treat them as offenders.  This group opened the national “Center for Women and Development” in Hanoi to provide shelter, counseling and financial and vocational support to sex and domestic violence victims.  It also began a program with its counterpart in South Korea to set up pre-marriage counseling centers and hotlines in key source areas of Vietnam.

            Some efforts to prevent trafficking involve public awareness.  The VWU and the Vietnam Youth Union have conducted advertisements, radio and television campaigns, and targeted events at schools in high-risk area.  Vietnam Television occasionally addresses trafficking in a popular home economics program by featuring returnees who discuss their experiences and how to avoid trafficking.    Vietnam established a child sex tourism investigative unit within the Ministry of Public Security.  Last but not least, Vietnam worked with the U.S. governemnt on the successful prosecution of an American citizen who was a promoter of child sex tourism in Vietnam.

             In the U.S., the Vietnamese-American Voters Association (VAVA) was one of the many civic organizations that have mounted three annual conferences from the East to the West coasts since 2005.  Each conference is a public awareness forum in which local officials, NGOs, community-based organizations (CBOs) and the media work together to formulate strategies and make recommendations on combating human trafficking in Vietnam.

The focus of the first conference, held in 2006 at the U.S. Congress, was the three Ps: Prevention, Protection, and Prosecution.  The legal, labor and human rights implications of human trafficking were discussed  at the second conference, at Chapman University in Orange, California, in 2007.  The theme for the third conference, in Harrisburg, PA, was the Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Vietnamese Trafficking Victims.

Amb. John Miller and Mark Taylor of the TIP Office, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kelly Ryan of the Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration at the Department of State, as well as prominent speakers from the Department of Justice, and representatives of NGOs ( including Vital Voices, Pacific Links, and IOM-Vietnam), Father Peter Hung of Taiwan, and CBOs have voiced their concerns and made the following recommendations for Vietnam, some of which were highlighted in the State Department’s anti-trafficking report:

Government and NGOs should coordinate local, regional and national programs to alert communities to the dangers of trafficking.  They should also improve and expand educational and economic opportunities for vulnerable groups. Vietnamese victims must be rescued, repatriated, rehabilitated, and reintegrated into their families and communities.

The Ministry of Justice and law enforcement agencies must vigorously prosecute traffickers, fight public corruption, identify and interdict traffickers, and train personnel to identify and direct victims to appropriate care.

International organizations and other nations should cooperate more closely with Vietnam to deny traffickers legal sanctuary and facilitate their extradition for prosecution.

In the schools, children and teenagers, especially girls, should be informed about human trafficking.  They should also be encouraged to graduate from high school so they can seek decent employment.

The Vietnamese media should not only educate the public on the victimization of those who fall into traffickers’ hands, but also disseminate more information on the perpetrators and the corrupt systems within which they operate.

* Victims should receive treatment that will help them regain their dignity and resume their place in society.  They should not be treated as law-breakers.

To this day, Vietnam has not ratified the 2000 UN TIP Protocol and there is much work to be done with the possiblity of a million Vietnamese laborers being victimized in different parts of the globe.