Tuyet had already quit school when the traffickers came.
Living high up in the mountains, far from the bustling cities and growing economy of Vietnam’s lowlands, Tuyet just didn’t see much point in studying.
Her family lived in extreme poverty and Tuyet knew almost nothing of the outside world. All she knew was that life was a daily grind, a struggle to get by and have enough to eat.
So when the traffickers targeted her village, promising training and jobs with a life of wealth to follow, Tuyet and her family figured they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Other families in the area agreed to let their kids go, so it seemed to be safe and nobody wanted to miss out. Opportunities like this were rare.
Families were assured that the children would be taken to Hanoi and learn to become tailors. For this community, these promises sounded wonderful. Nobody had actually been to Hanoi – it was just a concept in their minds as a place where rich families live.
So when the bus trip took 4 days, the children didn’t understand that they were not being taken to Hanoi. Instead, they were taken to Ho Chi Minh City, over 1,200km away.
And they had no way of knowing that being a ‘tailor’ would mean working 18 hours a day in a garment factory.
The children left on a bus together, excited and nervous. That was the last their parents saw or heard of them.
Six months later, word reached Blue Dragon about what had happened. The communities knew that something was wrong – the phone numbers they had been given by the traffickers were all turned off and they had heard nothing from any of the children. But they simply didn’t know what to do.
Traveling up into the mountains to meet the families, it was immediately clear that this investigation was going to be very difficult. Many of the families didn’t speak Kinh, the official Vietnamese language, so translators were needed to communicate in Kho Mu, H’mong and Thai.
Even then, the families had very little information. There was almost no evidence at all of what had happened to these children.
The one breakthrough was in a meeting with a young man who himself had been in the garment factories of Ho Chi Minh City several years ago. He didn’t know any addresses or street names, but he could describe what the area looked like and explain the sort of factories that the children would be held in.
The young man painted a grim picture. He told us that it was most likely the children had been divided up into more than one garment factory and were locked in as slaves. They would be working day and night without breaks and sleeping on concrete floors beside the machines.
Armed with that knowledge, Blue Dragon traveled to Ho Chi Minh City with police and began a search. We paced the streets of the industrial suburbs for two days and nights, looking for factories with children sitting on the floor or sitting at their machines. Late at night, we looked for buildings that had lights on and motors running. We peered through cracks in windows to see who was inside.
And finally we found them.
Spread across two buildings, the 23 girls and boys from rural northern villages were exhausted, depressed, and afraid. Among them, 13-year-old Tuyet sat at a giant sewing machine wondering if she would ever see her family again.
The moment that police and Blue Dragon entered the factories, the children’s faces turned from hopelessness to hope, and then to relief. Finally, they were safe.
Within a week, the children were home and the factories closed forever. But Blue Dragon’s work didn’t end there. We knew that there were more children from these mountain areas being taken to the factories, and also being sold across the border into China. We set up a permanent presence in the region and to this day are still combating human trafficking there.
We’re helping families to break out of poverty by creating opportunities for jobs and farming. In schools, we provide scholarships and work with teachers to help them identify the signs of human trafficking. And we train up village leaders and community members so they understand the dangers and know how to prevent this from happening again.
Trafficking is still a significant issue in the area, but there are no more kids being taken to the garment factories like before.
And the great news is that the 23 children all stayed safe after the rescue. Most went back to school, and those who were too old went off to start in jobs within their family or community.
After her frightening ordeal, Tuyet decided to return to school. With Blue Dragon’s support, she went back to Grade 7 and continued right through until she graduated high school.
Today Tuyet works as a security guard, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that her job is to keep people safe. She knows the importance of protecting others.
Tuyet’s life now is a world away from when she was so poor that the promises of a human trafficker could lure her into danger.
She’s proud of how far she has come, and rightly so.
Tuyet deserved the chance to grow up in safety and choose her own destiny. And we must not stop the fight against human trafficking until every child has that same chance.