In October 2019, 39 people were found dead inside a sealed refrigeration trailer in Grays, Essex, in the United Kingdom. Initially thought to be Chinese, these people were, in fact, Vietnamese, mostly from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces in the north-central region of Vietnam, who had left their families and their homeland for a minuscule chance at a better life.
“They were treated worse than cattle,” DCI Daniel Stoten, the lead investigator, told The Guardian. This tragic event is now commonly known as the Essex Lorry Deaths.
In response to this tragedy, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who was the prime minister of Vietnam at that time, ordered an investigation into the incident. He ordered the Ministry of Public Security, the Foreign Ministry, and the two central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh to investigate and find out cases of Vietnamese citizens being brought illegally to foreign countries and strictly handle the violations.
Yet, after almost two years, despite the sentencing and imprisonment of the people involved with the trafficking crimes and the investigations by Vietnam and other foreign governments, human trafficking in Vietnam continues to thrive.
Deutsche Welle, a media organization based in Germany, reports that the ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases in the country is pushing more and more Vietnamese citizens to turn towards smuggling and human trafficking to make ends meet. Despite the country’s closed borders, people are still able to move in and out of the country through routes passing through neighboring Myanmar and China.
Michael Brosowski, the co-founder of the Hanoi-based Blue Dragon Foundation, a charity organization that deals with child rescue and human trafficking, mentions in the article that most of the cases he’s been handling involve women and girls from ethnic minorities. He also adds that there have been reports of girls being forced to work in karaoke bars, which are likely fronts for brothels.
Human trafficking is a messy, disturbing, and heartbreaking issue. Yet, the fact that it continues to this day and that some people willingly choose to engage in it, or are left with no other choice but to resort to it, only underscores the importance and necessity of open dialogue and addressing it in the public sphere. In the context of Vietnam, it is essential to reflect on why it continues to be so prevalent and on why it has remained cancer growing seemingly unchallenged in Vietnamese society.
Human Trafficking in Vietnam
The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” They add that “men, women, and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime” and that the people who operate such practices often use “violence, fraudulent employment agencies, or fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce their victims.”
The U.S. Department of State’s global report on human trafficking provides several facts and statistics regarding the troubled state of this issue in Vietnam and lays out several recommendations that the country should take in order to better improve this situation. Likewise, our own Jason Nguyen, in his pieceregarding human trafficking, summarizes many of the key points and features of this aforementioned report.
To put it simply, The U.S. Department of State classifies Vietnam under its Tier 2 watchlist; this means that the country has not met its minimum standards in terms of eliminating human trafficking but is at least trying to do so. Continued failure to act and a lack of concrete action may lead Vietnam to be reclassified as Tier 3; countries that fall under this bracket will be barred from getting any financial assistance from the United States. Vietnamese citizens will also face heightened immigration restrictions and the assets of Vietnamese officials in the United States will be frozen as well.
Regarding the actions Vietnam is currently undertaking to address human trafficking, Nguyen writes that the country has ramped up prosecution against human traffickers and has passed legal revisions to terminate ludicrous brokerage fees; these fees, if too steep, cannot be realistically paid. In effect, workers end up indebted to their employers
With regards to specific legislation, Nguyen notes that Articles 150 and 151 of the Penal Code are specific anti-trafficking provisions that aim to dissuade would-be traffickers; both carry hefty prison sentences and associated fines. Yet, despite being called “sufficiently stringent” in the U.S. Department of State’s report, the implementation of these laws is not ideal. Despite having more charges filed against human traffickers, the number of investigations and convictions has actually decreased. Poor data collection, inadequate monitoring, and problematic evidence collection continue to hinder Vietnam’s fight against human trafficking, despite the government providing personnel and state forces anti-trafficking training.
The U.S. Department of State report also alleges that some Vietnamese government officials, at the commune and village levels, were complicit in the practice of trafficking itself. They allegedly accepted bribes from traffickers, overlooked trafficking indicators, and even demanded large sums of money from the victims prior to reuniting them with their families.
As for the victims and perpetrators of human trafficking themselves, Nguyen writes that “over 60 percent of victims come from ethnic minority groups” and that both traffickers and their victims “share poor economic and educational backgrounds.” He also notes that most traffickers are also illiterate and have not finished high school.
The Borgen Project, a non-profit organization that aims to make fighting poverty part and parcel of the U.S foreign policy, also notes several facts that highlight the plight of Vietnamese human trafficking victims; men, women, and children are all fair game in this industry and their servitude ranges from forced labor in various physically intensive industries, such as manufacturing or agriculture, to prostitution and sex work in brothels.
Addressing the Issue
The U.S. Department of State’s global report does an exceptional job in presenting the current state of human trafficking in Vietnam. Likewise, it also provides several suggestions and recommendations that the country should prioritize to improve the situation as soon as possible. Nguyen condenses these as follows:
- Bolstering collaboration with NGOs and civil society;
- Amending existing loopholes;
- Training law enforcement officials in domestic trafficking cases;
- Implementing policies;
- Increasing national funding for provincial-level authorities to assist victims of trafficking; and
- Inviting independent bodies to verify that the government has terminated forced labor in rehabilitation centers.
These suggestions are all well and good but they mostly seem to deal with the effects and the aftermath of human trafficking itself; even preventative measures such as information campaigns and policy formation skirt the root of the problem. They fail to get to the heart of the issue and sadly this almost guarantees that human trafficking in Vietnam will continue to exist and grow.
How then should we approach Vietnam’s human trafficking problem?
As mentioned earlier, the victims and perpetrators of human trafficking in the country do not come from privilege nor wealth. They are not from the upper or middle classes of society, nor have they completed their formal education; some cannot even read. They come from ethnic minorities and face daily challenges that would seem alien to those blessed with the sanctity of comfort. They constantly live in extreme poverty, and due to their actual and perceived lack of choice, are forced to latch onto any opportunity that comes their way just to be able to bring home food for themselves and for their families. Necessity and despair force both traffickers and their victims to do what they think they need to do, even if it means resorting to illegal and dehumanizing means.
The hopeless deceive the hopeless with promises of greener pastures and a better life while concealing the risks, dangers, and reality.
Inequality, poverty, and social disparity are at the center of this issue and if Vietnam desires long-lasting permanent change regarding human trafficking, these need to be rightfully addressed and resolved.
Granted, non-governmental organizations and volunteer groups, such as the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, exist and are already doing their part to help alleviate this situation. However, they lack the funds, manpower, and machinery to continuously push forward to bring about definite progress; only the Vietnamese government has an abundance of all three. And yet, the government seems content with keeping the status quo and staying at Tier 2.
Hence, unless some form of change occurs within the government, or the human trafficking trade suddenly becomes less lucrative for those corrupt and morally bankrupt officials involved in it, more Vietnamese people face the risk of suffocating to death in a cramped enclosed space, thousands of miles away from their homes and loved ones.
- BBC News. (2021, January 22). Essex lorry deaths: Men jailed for killing 39 migrants in trailer. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-essex-55765213.
- Gentleman, A. (2020, December 21). Essex lorry deaths: two found guilty over manslaughter of 39 Vietnamese people. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/21/essex-lorry-trial-two-found-guilty-over-deaths-of-39-vietnamese-people.
- Thuy, H. (2019, October 27). PM orders investigation into overseas trafficking of Vietnamese citizens – VnExpress International. VnExpress International – Latest news, business, travel, and analysis from Vietnam. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/pm-orders-investigation-into-overseas-trafficking-of-vietnamese-citizens-4002921.html.
- Bohane, H. (2021, June 11). Vietnam: Human trafficking on the rise amid COVID: DW: 11.06.2021. DW Made for Minds. https://www.dw.com/en/vietnam-human-trafficking-on-the-rise-amid-covid/a-57853994
- The United Nations: Office on Drugs and Crime. (n.d.). Human-Trafficking. United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime. https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/human-trafficking.html.
- Office To Monitor And Combat Trafficking In Persons. (2021, July 1). 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: Vietnam. United States Department of State. https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/vietnam/
- Nguyen, J. (2021, July 17). Q&A: What You Should Know About The Human Trafficking Situation In Vietnam. The Vietnamese. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2021/07/qa-what-you-should-know-about-the-human-trafficking-situation-in-vietnam/.
- Minh, H. L. (2020, January 18). 10 Facts About Human Trafficking in Vietnam. The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/10-facts-about-human-trafficking-in-vietnam/.