Vietnam remains on State Department Watchlist for Human Trafficking
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The US State Department’s annual Trafficking In Person’s (TIP) report makes an invaluable contribution to the otherwise limited body of knowledge of human trafficking in every country around the world.

This 20th report, issued in late June, once again provides a wealth of information, summarizing each country’s efforts to protect victims of trafficking, prosecute traffickers, and prevent further trafficking. Highly specific recommendations are made for what each country should do to improve its anti-trafficking performance.

Vietnam has been ranked on the Tier 2 Watchlist for the second year running, with the report pointing to two particular concerns about Vietnam’s efforts.

First, the number of prosecutions of traffickers has fallen in recent years. As reported, in 2019 Vietnamese courts secured 174 convictions against human traffickers. Blue Dragon was involved in 21% of these cases, which is a significant contribution for a medium-sized charity to make. But why aren’t more cases making their way to court?

There seem to be two obstacles. One is that a significant proportion of trafficking cases in Vietnam involve international trafficking: largely to China, but also to other countries. This makes the gathering of evidence extremely difficult; and of course, the destination country might be where the traffickers are arrested and tried in court. The other reason is more in Vietnam’s power to address: weaknesses in articles 150 and 151 of the penal code, which need clarification and guidelines for police and prosecutors.

The successful prosecution of human traffickers has been declining since the new penal code came into effect in January 2018. With amendments to the law, Vietnam would be able to more readily prosecute cases that the current code does not adequately clarify: domestic labor trafficking; the trafficking of males; and forced surrogacy, as some key examples.

A particularly problematic gap in the current law pertains to victims of trafficking aged 16 and 17. Under Vietnamese law they are not defined as children so are not covered by Article 151 of the penal code, while Article 150 leaves a loophole by requiring that the victim has been coerced or deceived. Traffickers are able to exploit this loophole by nominally seeking the ‘consent’ of the victim, or creating the appearance of having consent. Although the government has been trying to address this, a revision to the law is essential to create clarity. Given that an estimated 25% of those trafficked into China are aged 16 and 17, their exclusion from protection by the law is a serious omission which, as the TIP Report states, should be addressed as a priority.

While the report specifically refers to the declining number of prosecutions as a reason for Vietnam to be kept on the Watchlist, it is worth noting that with 300 identified victims of trafficking throughout the year, there were 174 successful prosecutions. By contrast, the report ranks Australia as a Tier 1 country, despite identifying only 84 victims and initiating prosecutions against 9 alleged traffickers. Vietnam’s actual numbers of identified victims, and rate of prosecutions, is considerably higher, but because of the downward trend in recent year the report penalizes the country with the poor ranking.

While the law as it stands has these weaknesses, Blue Dragon believes that the government has the will and the capacity to make the necessary amendments that will allow for an increase in successful prosecutions. We stand ready to provide our input into a revision of the penal code and law on Trafficking in Persons to ensure our on-the-ground experience informs the process.

The second reason for Vietnam remaining on the Tier 2 Watchlist is explained as a need to provide more adequate identification, protection and support to trafficking survivors.

In this area, Blue Dragon’s view is that the government has made great strides in developing systems for victim protection, and now needs more resources and guidelines for them to be implemented.

The report points to a relatively low number of identified victims of trafficking, with 300 people officially recorded in 2019. The formal identification of victims of human trafficking is an issue for many countries and the reasons are complex.

During 2019, Blue Dragon rescued 110 people from trafficking, and assisted another 38 who were rescued by police from either Vietnam or China. But not all of these 148 people are represented in the official count of 300. Human trafficking is often a ‘hidden crime’. Not all trafficking survivors can prove that they were trafficked; and there are those who do not wish to be identified because of a fear of reprisal, or the stigma that the comes with the label.

While these reasons may be out of a country’s control, Vietnam can improve victim identification by simplifying the procedures involved and providing clear guidance, especially for officials at provincial and district levels who are responsible for implementing the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), formally identifying victims and referring them to support services.

Blue Dragon is doing some innovative work in Ha Giang province, which borders China, on the implementation of Vietnam’s NRM. Working with the provincial-level Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (DOLISA), we are exploring the challenges that officials face on the ground to identify victims, and developing recommendations for improvement. This will lead to the creation of guidelines specific to Ha Giang, outlining areas of responsibility among the various agencies, how and when to communicate about cases, and how to protect the victim from re-traumatisation. While this is underway, we are already starting to see improvements in coordination, so during this year we will start the same process in another northern border province, Dien Bien. It’s a little early to know if this process will work and result in more victims being identified in the longer term, but so far the indications are positive.

Apart from improvements to the National Referral Mechanism, Vietnam can achieve better outcomes for trafficking survivors through improvements to the training and resourcing of frontline social workers. There is a need for community-based reintegration services, as most survivors of trafficking do not wish to stay in shelters beyond the need for emergency accommodation.

Skilling up frontline workers needs ongoing mentoring and training, and the sharing of experiences by those who are working in the field. One-off training workshops – the type typically held in hotel ballrooms with visiting experts from other countries – are expensive and have little to no value. You can’t create a social worker with a one-day training program. Evidence-based, properly evaluated instruction planned for the long term is essential for this purpose.

Given the immense challenges that it faces, Vietnam can be proud of the success it has achieved so far to end human trafficking. The State Department’s 2020 report rightly points to steps that Vietnam has taken recently to improve victim protection, such as the introduction of a circular to guarantee the right to legal representation. The country’s openness to international cooperation, including NGOs, is an indication of its willingness to address human trafficking head-on.

Now, with some targeted legal reforms and the development of training for frontline workers, and improved implementation of the National Referral Mechanism, Vietnam should be able to increase its efforts and step up the fight against all forms of human trafficking. 

This article was first published on Blue Dragon LinkedIn

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