One for the boys

Ninh and Tan* say they are 12 and 13 years old respectively. They look much younger than that, and in reality they probably don't know when they were born.

The boys are neighbours from a Hmong community in northern Vietnam. Five months ago, a trafficker came to their village offering help to impoverished families, and took the boys along with 3 young men with the promise of short term work.

None of the group had been away from their village before, so they had no idea they were being taken to China. Within a week they were enslaved in a shoe-making factory far from home, working impossibly long hours and being fed starvation rations. Their boss was cruel and savage; the workers lived in terrible fear.

Earlier this week, Ninh and Tan had a reprieve from the factory. The boss, a Chinese businessman, took them to the market to help him carry home some supplies. While walking through the streets, the older of the 2 boys spotted a policeman. Taking an incredible risk, they ran away from their boss and clung to the Chinese policeman, who couldn't understand a word they said but recognised the terror in their eyes.

The boys were lucky; their risk paid off. The Chinese police found a translator and learned that the boys had been trafficked. Unfortunately, Ninh and Tan could not recall the location of the factory, so while have now been repatriated to Vietnam, their friends remain enslaved in China.

On Saturday morning the boys reached and Hanoi and spent time at Blue Dragon before our anti-trafficking team started the journey back to their home town. It will be at least 20 hours before they get there; the distance is not so great, but there are few roads between here and there. Ninh and Tan have spoken to their families over the phone and are excited to finally being back with their mums and dads.

Talking to them over lunch, I asked the older boy Tan about the experience of running to the Chinese police. "Weren't you afraid to take such a risk?" I asked.

Tan's answer was bold and forthright. "We were afraid, but we had to do it," he said. "We had to escape no matter what."

Aged just 13, and already deserving of a medal for heroism. His escape could have gone horribly wrong, and he could well have ended up being re-sold to another trafficker, or beaten severely by his boss, or... well, the possibilities are endless.

When we think of human trafficking, we tend to think singularly of girls. The evidence definitely suggests that girls and women are more at risk of being trafficked than males; but the anti-trafficking services for boys and men are a mere fraction of the services for girls and women. The imbalance is too great.

I've been looked in the eye by people who work in anti-trafficking telling me that Blue Dragon simply should not rescue or work with boys who have been trafficked. We should focus exclusively on girls, I have been told.

This issue of boys' needs being overlooked and ignored is not just a pity. It's not just an imbalance. It's a violation of human rights and, in some instances, it borders on criminal negligence.

Boys are being trafficked into violent, dangerous, life-threatening slavery. They are also being trafficked into sexual servitude, although the scale is barely understood or acknowledged.

Here in Hanoi, the Blue Dragon team meets homeless boys every week who have encountered traffickers offering them money in exchange for sex - sometimes here in Hanoi, and sometimes in locations outside the city. We know of a pagoda and a pho shop which are bases for the trafficking of boys. We see the traffickers using Facebook on a routine basis to approach boys, befriend them, and then ensnare them. I'll be writing more about this in coming weeks.

So why are the boys less deserving of services and assistance than girls? Clearly they are not; the need is equal, whether the child is a girl or a boy. But we see girls as 'victims' and so are moved by their plight, while we continue to think that boys should be able to look after themselves. This is why there are people unafraid to elicit the view that boys should not receive help so long as there are girls in need.

To put it bluntly: The anti-trafficking industry needs to re-align its values to get help to those who need it most, and not only those who more easily attract public sympathy and, therefore, funding.

Ninh and Tan are on their way home as I write; by late Sunday they'll be back with their families. They have been through a frightening ordeal but now have a chance to return to a normal life. My hope is that the police now have enough information to round up the traffickers who took these boys, and also to find the other young men who were taken to slavery in China.

Girl or boy, man or woman. Any person trafficked in to slavery deserves a chance to escape and start over.

* Not their real names