The plight of human trafficking survivors: Back from hell but to what?

By Sen, Phan Duong   November 12, 2019 | 04:35 am PT
The plight of human trafficking survivors: Back from hell but to what?
Nguyen Thi Bien, 51, trafficked to China in 1991, works at a garment factory in her hometown in Bac Giang Province, October 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.
Nguyen Thi Bien cannot speak Vietnamese properly since she was trafficked to China 28 years ago and virtually lost her mother tongue.

She returned to Vietnam in August after Chinese authorities raided and deported undocumented immigrants. More about how she returned later.

Cut to the present. In a countryside garment factory in the northern Bac Giang Province, Bien sits beside a bunch of red cloth bags.

Around her dozens of other workers are making bags on sewing machines, but not Bien: Her job is to affix the company label on the bags, and she gets less than VND100,000 ($4.32) a day for it.

She was given that job after failing to learn sewing despite eight days of training at the factory.

"It's too difficult, I can't sew," she says.

Bien is one of many Vietnamese trafficking victims rescued from China who returned lost, damaged, without much assurance their life would ever go back to the normal old days.

Before being trafficked to China, she had been quite resourceful, working her family's rice field in Dong Lo Commune in Bac Giang while also attending a babysitting class.

On October 2, 1991, when she was 23, Bien left home with a plow and seemingly vanished without a trace.

With the muddy roads of her hometown then and lack of electricity, searching for her was a challenge.

Bien’s father, Nguyen Van Nhom, 82, recalls: "We walked the whole night that night to neighboring villages to look for her, but nobody had seen her."

The impoverished man with five other kids did not have the resources to keep searching for her, and could merely hope she was safe somewhere. "Every year on October 2 I burnt incense praying for my daughter." That's what people in Vietnamese do for their relatives on their death anniversary.

A male acquaintance in her town had told Bien about an opportunity in China for a better job and life, a common trick traffickers use to lure their targets.

When they reached China, he sold her to a family in a remote countryside.

She worked all day every day without pay "in the rice field, corn field, weaving mill.'' If she ever slacked, she was locked up.

Bien planned to run away many times, but her ignorance of the local language and layout of the place, especially in the beginning, prevented it.

Her life at the hands of her ‘masters’ has severely affected her mental state: She constantly switches between coherence and saying random things; her memory is jumbled.

Often she gets up in the middle of the night, runs to the front yard and rants that she would run away if she is not allowed to live on her own.

"Sometimes she still thinks she’s in her 20s, sometimes she thinks I kicked her out of the house," her father says sorrowfully.

China, the world’s most populous country, suffers from one of the worst gender imbalance rates due to its one-child policy and illegal abortion of female fetuses by parents who prefer sons. This has led to increasing trafficking of Vietnamese women and baby girls.

About 80 percent of trafficking victims in Vietnam end up in China, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

A map shows Vietnam as a source of trafficked persons for multiple destinations including China, France, Thailand, Malaysia, United Kingdom, and other. The interactive mapping tool is created by Blue Dragon, Freedom Collaborative and 39 other organisations around the world that plots human trafficking routes around the globe published last year September. Screenshot taken from Freedom Colloboratives portal. 

A map showing Vietnam as a source of victims for trafficking to many destinations, including China, France, Thailand, Malaysia, and the U.K. The interactive map was created in September 2018 by Blue Dragon, Freedom Collaborative and 39 other organizations around the world to plot human trafficking routes around the globe.

Linh (name changed) was 17 when she was taken to China and sold to a 30-year-old man as a bride.

The girl from the Mekong Delta was lured with the same story as Bien: that she could earn a higher income to support her poor family.

After more than a year of living with her Chinese ‘husband’ she managed to call her family, who alerted Blue Dragon, a Hanoi-based nonprofit that rescues Vietnamese trafficked to China.

Blue Dragon went to the police and Linh was rescued.


When a person for her commune miraculously found Bien at the border and brought her home, she could not speak Vietnamese properly. All she remembered were the names of her parents and her commune, Dong Lo. She only had her three sets of clothes and no identification papers or money.

Now, two months later, she still speaks mostly Chinese and a smattering of Vietnamese, which her family cannot fully understand. So she does not talk much or bond with them, meaning after 28 long years of being starved of familial affection, the famine continues.

At the family breakfast Bien sits and eats in silence amid a buzz of conversation between the others.

There are days when she does not speak a word to anyone, unless they initiate a conversation.

Her family is thinking of building a makeshift house next to theirs so that she can live with one of her unmarried sisters, who will be her caregiver.

Nguyen Van Nhom, Biens father (right) stands in front of his house in Dong Lo commune, Bac Giang Province. The family is recognized as a near-poverty household. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong

Nguyen Van Nhom, father of trafficking victim Nguyen Thi Bien, at their house in Dong Lo Commune, Bac Giang Province. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

Chau Dinh, a psychologist at Blue Dragon, has worked with over 650 trafficking survivors since 2010, says most trafficked women suffer from mental and sexual abuse. Many are also raped by their traffickers. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are some of the common problems they face.

Around 90 percent of the women Chau has worked with have been treated for STD.

They range in age from 13 to 65, but are mostly between 17 and 25.

Chau says: "People sold as sex workers have to work a lot. There are women who served 15 to 20 customers a day. Those married to Chinese men often suffered from physical abuse and sexual violence.

"When Linh first arrived at her buyer's home, she was locked up for some time. The man who bought her used every way he could to have sex and impregnate her."

Linh says she feels better now and is no longer consumed by the anxiety that plagued her when she first returned. Her only focus at the moment is to earn money.

Her travails have not coarsened her, and she remains gentle and affable.

Chau is a bit fearful though: "I'm afraid when something similar to her experience in China occurs, it might trigger her memories and she could feel traumatized again."

Young men aged 15-25 account for 5 percent of the survivors she has worked with. They are mostly ethnic people who were trafficked to China to work in mines and factories.

Unlike the women returnees, the men Blue Dragon rescued were usually undernourished with visible wounds, bruises and scars.

Almost all have been put under medication and given extra nutrition. Some have been sent to hospitals for specialized treatment. It usually takes a year for the survivors to recover psychologically and function normally, she says.

But to work with people who have undergone such trauma, it is vital for a psychologist to gain their trust and encourage them to open up.

It is not common for survivors to reveal what happened to them.

Khanh Ha, national project coordinator of the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UNACT), says many survivors do not want their stories to be "on display and butchered" and so keep their trafficking a secret.

"This means those who can help them like the police and social services are not able to."

Besides, many also fear the consequences since their traffickers are often someone they know in their hometown. Many victims are threatened that their families would suffer if they ever think of running away from China or whichever country they are trafficked to.

Chau of Blue Dragon narrates another sad fact. "When they report to the police after returning and the trafficker in their hometown gets arrested, his or her family goes to the victim’s house and disparages them publicly and spreads rumors about them.

"There are cases where the trafficker escapes before the police can apprehend them. This leaves the victims in constant fear that they might come back and take revenge."

Shunned by family

Home does not always welcome survivors back with open arms. While some families show sympathy, others shun and blame them for being "greedy," saying that sent them looking for money-making opportunities abroad.

Chau says: "Some people in their community fear the returnees would traffic their kids to China and forbid them from hanging out with each other. This makes the returnees feel ashamed and abandoned."

It is this rejection by the community that pushes many trafficking victims into becoming traffickers themselves.

"About 30 percent of the survivors I worked with told me their traffickers were themselves former victims."

All trafficking survivors at Blue Dragon think of their families as a bulwark against despair, yet very few live at home and instead move elsewhere to work.

Linh faces a stigma in her hometown, and so has moved to a city where she works as a waitress at a restaurant.

Feeble support

When trafficking victims manage to flee from their buyers or are rescued, they grab whatever they can and so often end up at home with little to nothing. Linh, for instance, came back on a freezing winter’s day with nothing on her except a pair of typical Chinese pyjama with dirt all over them and a pair of flip-flops.

The Vietnamese government does not earmark enough funds to support them.

"The [money allotted] for victims' essential needs, transportation, food, healthcare, and counselling is not practical considering costs in Vietnam," Khanh says.

For instance, they are entitled to VND30,000 ($1.29) a day at government-run centers for trafficking victims.

"There’s not much they can eat with that amount," Khanh says.

Each province has at least one social protection center for survivors.

But funding from overseas governments to combat human trafficking and house survivors at state-run centers is drying up.

Funding for the centers, mostly from European governments, has been scaled down as they seek to cope with the refugee crisis in their own countries.

"Vietnam becoming a middle-income country is also a factor," Khanh says.

She lists several other problems.

While resources are dwindling the centers have to take care of a number of vulnerable groups like children with AIDs, homeless people and orphans.

Their staffs are not trained to work with trafficking victims.

There is a lack of communication and coordination between agencies involved in trafficking assistance, meaning it is common for help to take a long time to reach returnees.

Bien received VND3 million ($130) from her province when she returned in August and nothing more.

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