Vietnam News

Young members of ethnic minority groups most at risk in Vietnam-China human trafficking trade

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The study by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation found that groups such as the H’mong and Thai were vulnerable to being caught up in the illicit trade. More than 60 per cent of victims and prosecuted traffickers were from these communities, and most of the latter had no prior criminal record.

Most people prosecuted for trafficking women from Vietnam to China between 2012 and 2020 were young members of ethnic minority groups with no prior criminal record, a new report has found, underlining how vulnerable people from those communities are to being caught up in the illicit trade.

The study by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a Hanoi-based non-profit that rescues and defends victims of human trafficking, was shared exclusively with This Week in Asia ahead of its Thursday release.

Of the 199 victims and 236 prosecuted traffickers covered by the report, more than 60 per cent are from minority groups including the H’mong, Thai, and Kho Mu. H’mong people accounted for almost a third of total victims and 33 per cent of total traffickers, despite making up around 1.4 per cent of Vietnam’s population. Kinh people – the majority ethnic group in the country, at 85 per cent of the population – accounted for 38 per cent of total victims and 33 per cent of total traffickers.

More than 60 per cent of the traffickers were between the ages of 19 and 35, while 10 of them were under 18. The youngest, a 13-year-old who trafficked her classmate, did not receive a sentence as she was a year under Vietnam’s age of criminal responsibility.

Men accounted for three fifths of traffickers, while all but one victim were women, with an average age of just over 19 years.

Almost half of the reported offenders had no prior criminal record. According to the report, more than 20 per cent had previously worked or lived in China, implying the importance of social networks in human trafficking. Despite the popular belief that many victims became traffickers themselves, less than 2 per cent of perpetrators fell into this category.

Most prosecuted traffickers were low-level recruiters rather than middlemen or high-level criminals. They came from underprivileged backgrounds, and almost all of them were illiterate or did not finish high school – similar to their victims.

The Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation said the economic and education background of the traffickers highlighted the need for investment in better socioeconomic opportunities to reduce the likelihood of people taking up trafficking as an income-generation strategy as well as the vulnerability of victims.

The report, which was funded by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, examines 102 court cases involving trafficking from Vietnam to China, though it specified that some of these were records that had been available to the public and did not represent the total cases of this nature.

“We mention that traffickers in Vietnam knew someone who lived and worked in China,” said Le Thi Hong Luong, one of the authors. “Those people requested their friends or family members to get involved in the crime by recruiting potential victims and transporting them to the [northern] border area.”

Many of the victims knew the trafficker on some level – whether it was a friend, boyfriend, classmate, neighbour, colleague or even a family member – while more than a third were befriended online or over the phone by the perpetrator.

More than 33 per cent of the victims were tricked with false job offers in China, Vietnam or other countries, while a quarter were recruited by marriage brokers with promises of a relationship with Chinese men. In reality, more than 70 per cent were trafficked into domestic servitude or forced marriages in mountainous areas or rural villages in China.

While some traffickers did not get paid, the 182 who did received an average payment of 36.2 million dong (US$1,570). The report noted that while there was a huge gap between the lowest and highest payments received – at 200,000 dong and 382 million dong respectively – it was possible that recruiters might have under-reported their takings.

The minimum monthly wage in Vietnam is around 4.42 million dong, but many traffickers in this data set come from areas that offer lower wages.

Vietnam is home to 53 ethnic minority groups, which make up 15 per cent of the population. Many members of these groups prefer informal labour migration to contracted employment, as this gives them the flexibility to return home to visit family or take care of farming business, according to Nguyen Vu Hai, ethnic minority programme officer at the Hanoi-based Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment.

“Some members of minority groups think contracted labour migration, which means going away for months or years at a time, is not always a good thing for them,” Hai said.

He said strategies to minimise the risk of human trafficking among these groups should be tailored to their need to find and migrate for work both in and outside Vietnam, based on a study his organisation conducted earlier this year of more than 600 members of 11 ethnic groups.

To this end, Hai cited the collaboration between Chinese officials and the authorities in Vietnam’s Khau Vai commune in Ha Giang Province, which borders China, that acknowledged existing cross-border labour migration while monitoring the situation.

Ha Giang has reported significant increases in human trafficking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions thanks to increased inter-agency collaboration and NGO technical assistance, going by a report released last week by the US State Department that said the Vietnamese government “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so”.

Countries with the lowest ranking in annual reports about human trafficking, Tier 3, face sanctions from the United States. Vietnam was ranked Tier 2 Watch List this year, the same as last year. Rebecca Miller, Southeast Asia coordinator of the human trafficking and migrant smuggling programme at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said in Vietnam and many other countries, those prosecuted for human trafficking were often low-level actors, meaning convictions did not meaningfully disrupt such activities.

This was one of the reasons Southeast Asian nations detected far fewer victims per capita than anywhere else in the world, despite people from the region representing the largest share of victims trafficked across borders, according to the UNODC, which has been monitoring criminal justice actions against human trafficking for the past decade.

Miller said another reason was the insufficient and uneven capacity to investigate and prosecute trafficking in many countries, adding that it was a challenge for law enforcement to build cases against traffickers because in many instances the sole or main evidence in a trial was testimony from victims.

It could harm an investigation when criminal justice practitioners lacked the capacity to effectively work with witnesses, not to mention language barriers in transnational cases, she said.

Trafficking survivors often live with the trauma of their experience for years. According to Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation founder and co-CEO Michael Brosowski, this meant delicate strategies were needed to work with them to investigate culprits.

“We always eliminate the situations that are re-traumatising for victims; for example, we ask the court to exempt the victim from providing face-to-face testimony when the evidence is sufficient,” said Brosowski, whose organisation also supplies survivors with psychological counselling.

He added that Vietnamese law should make traffickers pay more compensation to victims, as the minimum regulated amount was currently just 20 million dong, or less than US$870.

The foundation, which provides a lawyer for victims it represents, says that this has helped garner higher compensation payments.

Brosowski said the law should also allow the relatives of victims to receive compensation. “We know that they too go through great suffering and lose a lot of time and money searching for their missing family,” he said.

By Sen Nguyen – The South China Morning Post – July 8, 2021

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