In early June, my team from Blue Dragon went searching through the garment factories of Saigon to find 10 kids who had been trafficked from Dien Bien province.
These kids are all from ethnic minority villages, which means they are vulnerable to exploitation. In ethnic minority areas, levels of education are lower; many villagers have no experience of the ‘outside world’; and indeed many do not even speak Vietnamese.
Our trip was only a partial success; we found 7 of the kids, and were very happy to take them home. But 3 remained missing.
These rescue trips are emotionally demanding, yet almost always end on a high note. There’s nothing more satisfying than giving children back their freedom.
However, the June trip wasn’t a ‘high’. We were thrilled to have the 7 kids back – but the thought that there were more young people waiting for us to find them was painful. Their families, too, were worried sick.
Because they are from remote rural areas – at least 16 hours drive from Hanoi, or 3 hours from the nearest airport – and because of language and cultural differences, we found it hard to get clear information. How old were the kids? How long had they been gone? Many things were uncertain.
One of the kids in this particular factory had managed to secretly get hold of a mobile phone. If he was caught with it, the consequences would be severe. So he could use it only for a few minutes at a time, late at night… usually well after midnight, and sometimes as late as 4am. He’d been sending messages to his mother in Dien Bien, so she gave us the number and Blue Dragon staff started making regular late-night contact.
The group of kids were being held in a factory on the outskirts of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It’s a semi-rural area, so there were no signs or landmarks to give away the location. They simply didn’t know where they were.
Over a couple of weeks, we put together all the information that we could to work out where they might be, and on Sunday last week our lawyer, Van, traveled to Saigon to look for them one more time. Another of our staff headed up to Dien Bien to take statements from the families and find out more information. Our goal was not only to find the kids, but to provide the police with enough information that they too would take an interest in the case.
Through a LOT of determination and a little bit of luck, on Monday we located the factory where the kids were being held. On Wednesday July 4, while the US celebrated Independence Day, Blue Dragon staff worked alongside Vietnamese police, government officials, and journalists, to raid the factory and set free the 7 young people enslaved there.
The 6 boys and 1 girl are aged from 15 to 20. Some have been in captivity for 4 years. All are from ethnic minority villages in mountainous regions of Vietnam.
The factory owners, a husband and wife team, thought that they could trick and exploit these vulnerable young people, and that nobody would ever find out. The neighbours in the surrounding homes were genuinely shocked to learn of what was happening right under their noses; they’ve already dug deep to give the 7 youngsters some money for their journey home.
In coming days, the police will decide the fate of the husband and wife. They definitely have to pay compensation to the kids, and that’s due immediately – the kids will have it in their hands when they return home.
For now, the 7 kids are with Blue Dragon staff, having some much needed rest and making statements to the police about their ordeal. Soon they’ll be heading home, back to their families, with the rest of their lives ahead of them.
Happy Independence Day, kids.