|Blue Dragon Foundation's founder Michael Brosowski speaks to kids at a football match. Since 2006, the foundation has rescued 278 trafficked children. — Photo coutersy of Blue Dragon Foundation
by Thu Huong
HA NOI (VNS)— Earlier this month, 23-year-old Nguyen Chi Linh (not real name) finally got his long-awaited moment in the spotlight. He celebrated his graduation from a hospitality training programme as a security guard.
Three years ago, the Khmu ethnic resident from Dien Bien Province was once a forced labourer in a HCM City garment factory, getting beaten, working 16-hour shifts in mostly locked rooms and hardly ever getting to go out.
"An acquaintance in my hometown recommended me the job. I was told it was at a family-run garment factory in HCM City," Linh explained in heavily-accented Vietnamese. "I was promised VND1.5 million (US$72) per month and free meals."
Instead, Linh ended up receiving almost nothing from the factory's owners apart from verbal and physical abuse.
"I had no chance to escape. The doors were always locked. When we wanted to go out on a Sunday, the owner would ask someone to follow us," Linh remembered. "Our phone was confiscated."
Finally, he and 22 others were rescued in July 2012.
The release was made possible with the help of Blue Dragon Foundation, a nonprofit organisation based in Ha Noi and founded by Australian Michael Brosowski in 2004.
Since 2006, as part of its anti-trafficking programme, Blue Dragon has rescued 278 trafficked children and helped return them to their families when possible.
According to the organisation's rescue team, many youngsters can't escape from forced labour because they can't go far without money and factory owners can easily trace them and force them to return.
Brosowski believes the problem of internal trafficking in the form of labor exploitation is underestimated as most people only associate trafficking with girls and women being sold across borders.
"I have people who tell me we should not rescue children from factories, but only girls from brothels," he said. "I very strongly disagree. I think all forms of trafficking are terrible. They're just terrible in different ways."
According to statistics from ‘Programme 130 – Response to Trafficking' under the Ministry of Public Security, it is estimated that there were approximately 288 trafficking cases in 2012.
In the first quarter of 2013 there have been about 68 reported cases, of which 20 per cent are considered internal trafficking.
Florian Forster, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Viet Nam, said that trafficking does not only take place across international borders but also within the country.
"The victims often stay in their own country but there is still some geographical change. You get taken away from your family home. You have no registration status. Your entire support network is no longer there." In 2010, IOM Viet Nam implemented a two-year programme working with the Public Security Ministry and the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs for raising awareness about the different forms of trafficking.
Forster said that the programme has helped leading to the Anti-Human Trafficking Law, effective from January 1, 2012, which officially recognises internal trafficking as a problem.
However, he believes that challenges remain ahead, such as the issue of victim identification.
"When it comes to internal trafficking, many of the victims are not aware that they are victims. They might think ‘I was just naive and made a mistake.'"
That's why raising awareness is extremely important.
Blue Dragon is also working to create educational and counselling programmes for villages and affected communities.
"Parents often don't think their children are being trafficked," Brosowski said. "They believe that some kind people have come to offer vocational training for their children."
Two staff members at the foundation are now working full-time in close co-operation with local authorities and police to locate and rescue child labourers who have been bought, traded or kidnapped by traffickers.
The rescues, according to Brosowski, often start with them receiving information about a missing child from the local government or families.
Staff conduct investigations to find factories in HCM City in areas where reports of missing children are concentrated, going undercover in some cases as traffickers.
The locations of these places are well hidden and it is a very challenging task to safely rescue workers.
In one case, a 12-year-old victim managed to provide essential information to the team, leading to the rescue of other children trapped in slave labour factories across the city.
"I'm not sure we have ever failed to find kids in HCM City. So you just have to believe that there's always a way. You just have to find it," Brosowski said.
Tran Dinh Huan, deputy head of the Anti-trafficking Office under the Public Security Ministry, says his department has been working with Blue Dragon on the rescue missions since 2010.
Huan said children and young adults from mountainous areas are often targeted and lured to sweatshops in cities because of poverty and a lack of education.
"Some textile factories in HCM City take advantage of this. They promise to pay the youngsters as much as VND18 million a year, but in reality they receive almost nothing at all."
The office is requesting authorities in districts such as Tan Binh and Tan Phu to reassess the number of textile factories and household businesses that employ children and whether they are possibly trafficked, according to Huan.
Once the kids are rescued, Blue Dragon's mission doesn't end there. One of its other programmes is called ‘Safe and Sound', and it is aimed at providing ongoing care once the children have returned home.
This could mean supporting the families of poor trafficked children with medical treatment or helping victims find legitimate employment.
It was through Blue Dragon that Linh found his hospitality training course, run by the Ha Noi Hilton Hotel
But Brosowski knows the work is still far from done.
While he has been the focus of countless media reports, highlighting his journey from an English teacher to the Blue Dragon founder to becoming a CNN Hero of 2011, Brosowski wants the spotlight to be on the problem, not on himself.
"We honestly believe that in a few years' time Viet Nam can say none of its garment factories have children," he says.— VNS