Raising Awareness and Centering Survivors: Anti-Trafficking Programming in Northern Vietnam
July 22, 2021
Stretching to include Vietnam’s northernmost point, Ha Giang is often referred to as Vietnam’s final frontier. Steeped in rugged mountains and grand landscapes, Ha Giang is an overwhelmingly rural province, and home to a large ethnic minority population. Its long porous border with China makes migration a way of life for many in the region. While high poverty rates and a reliance on low-margin agriculture spur migrants to cross the border, these conditions also leave many vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. The majority of people trafficked in Vietnam are from regions characterized by high rates of poverty and unemployment; they also disproportionately belong to ethnic minority groups.
In the remote villages of Ha Giang, risks are exacerbated by a general lack of awareness of trafficking across the province. Many respondents of a household survey conducted in the region understood trafficking as something that happened by force, by abduction or threat of violence. But traffickers are not often so bold. Case research in the same province revealed that the majority of trafficking survivors knew their traffickers before they were exploited, underscoring the importance of awareness-raising to anti-trafficking programming.
We partnered with two local civil society organizations, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation and Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance), to implement comprehensive anti-trafficking programming in Vietnam, in Ha Giang province and Hanoi respectively. With an understanding of the particular vulnerabilities to trafficking in northern Vietnam, Blue Dragon and the Alliance developed programs that focused on prevention, survivor support, and deterrence. While providing support and resources for vulnerable individuals and communities, together, these programs also target the systems that enable trafficking in persons.
Lured by False Job Offers and Fake Marriages
The Vietnamese government estimates 90% of people trafficked from Vietnam are trafficked into China. Eighty percent are sexually exploited. In an analysis of court records from prosecuted trafficking cases in Vietnam, Blue Dragon found that deception was the most common recruitment strategy employed by traffickers. Over a third were lured by fraudulent job offers, 25% by false relationships, and another 25% by fake offers of marriage to Chinese men. “The main trick,” according to a member of a local NGO, “is ‘cheating or luring’ by pretending to build a relationship with victims gradually. Then traffickers trap victims by inviting them to hang out, go shopping at markets, trips near border areas, etc.” The overwhelming majority of these cases (97%) were for commercial sexual exploitation or forced marriage.
The main trick is ‘cheating or luring’ by pretending to build a relationship with victims gradually. Then traffickers trap victims by inviting them to hang out, go shopping at markets, trips near border areas, etc.
The More You Know: Raising Awareness of Trafficking Risks
To help raise awareness of the risks of trafficking and ultimately minimize those risks, Blue Dragon conducted a series of events across Ha Giang province, in collaboration with community stakeholders including village leaders, Women’s Union members, commune police officers, teachers and students. While screening at-risk households and providing support to at-risk individuals, Blue Dragon also led village-, community-, and school-based interventions to increase awareness. Each of these interventions explained the risks associated with irregular migration abroad, including sexual exploitation and forced labor. They also warned against actions, such as migrating without a contract or indebtedness before migration, that might increase one’s vulnerability. To raise awareness of support mechanisms should a case of trafficking be suspected, programming included guidance on who to contact and information on the anti-TIP hotline.
While targeted at prevention, these local interventions included a message of deterrence. The same analysis of court data revealed that traffickers commonly operate in the same impoverished and vulnerable communities as those they traffic. When confronting a lack of viable livelihood options, traffickers frequently act opportunistically, looking to escape their own desperate circumstances. By including an emphasis on the severity of the crime and the penalties that it can incur in its programming, Blue Dragon aimed also to deter would-be traffickers.
Raising Awareness, Decreasing Risk of Trafficking
Post-intervention surveys reveal that these efforts are making a difference. Generally, project findings show a positive relationship between being exposed to awareness-raising activities and understanding of trafficking risks and vulnerabilities. At baseline, for example, only 40% of migrant households in Meo Vac (an intervention district) reported migrating for work with a contract. At program end, 64% were more likely to migrate with a contract. Findings also demonstrate a significant rise in awareness of whom to contact with trafficking concerns, including the provincial anti-TIP hotline. At endline, 28% of respondents listed the hotline as a reporting mechanism versus just .04% at baseline. With a better understanding of the risks of trafficking, migrants are less at risk of exploitation.
Findings also demonstrate a significant rise in awareness of whom to contact with trafficking concerns, including the provincial anti-TIP hotline. At endline, 28% of respondents listed the hotline as a reporting mechanism versus just .04% at baseline. With a better understanding of the risks of trafficking, migrants are less at risk of exploitation.
A Focus on Survivor Support
Despite the heightened risk of trafficking in Ha Giang province, no trafficking survivors reported receiving reintegration support prior to Blue Dragon’s intervention. Across government, law enforcement agencies, and social service organizations, efforts to identify and provide survivor support remained fragmented, making it difficult for survivors to access needed services and resources. Blue Dragon worked with each of these stakeholders to strengthen channels of coordination and information-sharing and to implement the National Referral Mechanism –a cooperative framework through which trafficking victims are identified and referred for services- at the provincial level. Ha Giang authorities have since referred or directly provided reintegration support to thirty-five trafficking survivors, but the mechanisms put in place will ensure many future survivors receive the resources and support they need.
Beyond enhanced coordination, Blue Dragon supported a training program to better prepare social workers engaging directly with survivors. Commenting on the usefulness of the intervention, one program graduate shared, “We used to attend training on the local policies and regulations relating to trafficking in persons, but this is the first time ever we have been trained on how to work with survivors to support them effectively.”
This is the first time ever we have been trained on how to work with survivors and support them effectively.
Social workers trained through the Blue Dragon program were locally-based. The social workers, as well as the service providers involved in the program, understood the socio-economic conditions in each community and almost all were able to communicate with survivors in their native languages or dialects. While this ensured services were accessible to survivors, the program’s emphasis on survivor-centric support empowered survivors to choose services that best supported their individual needs, whether that be housing, healthcare, or vocational training. When survivors are given agency to determine their own paths forward, their freedom becomes more sustainable. 46 of 52 survivors supported by Blue Dragon were “successfully reintegrated,” meaning their risk of re-trafficking was significantly diminished, they were effectively managing their trauma, and building a sustainable new lifestyle.
The Significance of Survivor-Centric Programming
The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (the Alliance) program similarly supported survivor reintegration by providing livelihood training, specifically by helping survivors develop skills necessary for work in the hospitality sector. As part of GFEMS anti-trafficking portfolio in northern Vietnam, the Alliance established a training program in Hanoi. Sixty-three percent of those who graduated from the program did in fact secure full-time employment in the hospitality sector. However, almost half of those who enrolled in the program did not graduate. Though disheartening, understanding this dropout rate is critical to building more effective interventions. The majority of students who discontinued the program lacked networks of peer support. Trainees, who were from rural provinces, including Ha Giang, had trouble adapting in Hanoi. This finding, combined with the positive response to Blue Dragon’s locally accessible programming, demonstrates the significance of tailoring programs to meet survivor needs. (From this learning, the Alliance and GFEMS shifted remaining funding to the Alliance’s programming in India.)
We partnered with Blue Dragon and the Alliance to combat trafficking in northern Vietnam. While programming directly impacted hundreds of individuals, many hundreds more will benefit from enhanced community awareness and improved social services. Moreover, lessons learned from these interventions will shape future interventions. From these programs, we can build stronger, more sustainable solutions to end trafficking in persons.
This article and the projects it references were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State.