The offer came to families on the edge of desperation, living and working around the clock on garbage dumps whose sickening stench seeps into their clothes.
A motherly woman accompanied by a kindly gentleman arrived one day in early December, shortly before the New Year’s Tet celebration when the poorest of the poor hope for a little extra cash for modest festivities. The two said they were looking for attractive young women to work in a Ho Chi Minh City cafe, and they were ready to give each family a $60 advance – a small fortune for people barely scraping by on a couple of dollars a day – or less.
Though at least two fathers objected, they were overruled by their wives and daughters, who were willing to take any risk to help their struggling clans. After examining each girl like livestock, the man chose five of the prettiest teenagers, and picked two more from a neighboring area. The teens quickly packed a few belongings and left.
Seventeen-year-old Truong Thi Nhi Linh was one of those chosen. It was, she says, the best chance to help her family – a chance to make considerably more money than she earns working 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. in the dump, sloshing around on rainy nights in knee-high sludge among swarms of other workers looking for bits of junk.
She reassured her parents, who opposed her leaving. “I said, ‘It’s OK. I’m just going to work.” She added, “I want to help my family.”
later, one of the few parents with a cell phone received a panicked call from their daughter – they were not headed north to Ho Chi Minh City but to Cambodia, where the girls would be forced into the sex trade.
It is a misfortune that falls on many young women in Southeast Asia with the twin vulnerabilities of being pretty and poor. Like their parents, they often are illiterate and profoundly uninformed about the dangers of international sex trafficking and how strangers drug or lure unsuspecting teens into a life of satisfying the cravings of foreign men. Their innocence is prized: Some Asian men are willing to pay as much as $600 to have sex with a virgin because they believe it will restore their youth, give them good fortune or even cure them of AIDS.
Vietnam, with an abundance of beautiful young women living in desperate straits, is a magnet for human brokers – some of whom pay families to marry off their daughters to men in Korea, Taiwan and China; others are linked directly to human trafficking. Parents often ignore the dangers to their daughters in pursuit of a better life.
“The families are so poor,” said Quach Thi Phan, chairwoman of the Women’s Union of Rach Gia City in Kien Giang Province, which organizes anti-trafficking educational campaigns. “They just think about how to get money, how to find a job.”
In the case of the Rach Gia girls, the police conducted a last-minute raid near the Cambodian border to rescue them after receiving calls from a community member and, eventually, at least one worried parent. The almost routine incident received no local news coverage, underscoring the virtual daily threat to the world’s underclass.
“It’s globalization in its ugliest form,” said Diep Vuong, president of Pacific Links Foundation, a Milpitas-based non-profit started by Vietnamese-Americans. The organization works to prevent human trafficking by providing educational opportunities to at-risk Vietnamese girls and those who escape the sex trade.
“If you don’t know how to read the public announcements or have enough money for newspapers and you barely have enough to eat, how can you understand there are risks?” she said. “It’s so easy to look the other way. I meet many young women who say, ‘I know it’s risky, but I must try because we are so poor.’ I tell them, ‘Do you think you’ll be able to sleep with 15 guys a day?’ They are mostly terrified and surprised; ‘What are you talking about?’ they ask.”
A half-million young women are trafficked each year around the world, according to the U.S. State Department. In Vietnam, the government recently reported that last year there were 6,684 victims of trafficking, with 2,579 returned to their homes. It also said there were 21,038 people reported missing who could have been sold into prostitution.
Vietnamese authorities in recent years have moved aggressively to stop sex trafficking. Police in the home province of the seven teens, for instance, have officers dedicated to cracking down on traffickers. Overall, though, neither the national nor local governments has enough resources to adequately fight the problem, experts say.
In 2004, NBC’s “Dateline” news show broadcast a report about Cambodia’s sex trade. To the horror of the Vietnamese-American community, the young prostitutes spoke Vietnamese. As a result of the broadcast, a number of Vietnamese in the Bay Area and elsewhere began creating programs to prevent such sexual exploitation, said Benjamin Lee, chairman of San Jose-based Aid to Children Without Parents.
They set up organizations to provide opportunities and hope for those at the bottom of the economic ladder and assistance to those who escape forced prostitution.
But they face a culture that makes their task difficult; in some cases, parents willingly sell their daughters to traffickers for thousands of dollars. “In the Eastern way of thinking, the children have to obey their parents: ‘I have my body. I will do this for my family,'” said Nguyen Kim Thien, director of Ho Chi Minh City’s Little Rose Warm Shelter for sexually abused girls.
This modern-day slavery takes root in regions isolated by abject poverty and proximity to Cambodia’s thriving sex trade, such as parts of the Mekong Delta. One such place is on the outskirts of the bustling port city of Rach Gia in a majority ethnic Khmer community.
Though Vietnam boasts a literacy rate of more than 90 percent, many of the residents in this community have little or no education. They spend their days and nights picking through heaps of garbage for recyclable materials, such as plastic and metal. Children, barefoot and barely clothed, play amid the foul-smelling waste.
“This is a community in which we had to teach them how to use soap, how to use a bathroom – the basics of the basics,” said Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker, co-founder and executive director of the U.S.-based Catalyst Foundation, which has set up a school in the area and is working with Habitat for Humanity to construct homes for people in the community.
“Their day-to-day life is, ‘How do I get food on the table today? Who is going to take care of my child today?'” she said. “Life has been so hard for them. They can’t think of the future.”
They live in huts with thatch roofs on or near a garbage dump swarming with flies and mosquitos. On a recent morning, 23-year-old Kim Thi Mau sorted dirty plastic bags. Last year, her 4-year-old son Lam drowned when he fell in a ditch filled with water while she and her husband worked nearby. She has two other sons, 20 months and 4 months.
“I hope there is a school that can take care of my children – some place not like this, dirty,” said Kim who, like her 28-year-old husband, is illiterate.
So it can be difficult to resist strangers who arrive in a village promising good-paying jobs. Many of these families survive on $1 or $2 a day. In the case of the seven teens, the traffickers said they could pay each one about $120 a month working in a city cafe.
On that December morning, a respected family in Rach Gia’s Vinh Quang ward sent out word about the employment offer. More than a dozen girls and their families gathered at a house.
“The man looked at our faces and said, ‘This girl is OK. This one is OK,'” said Danh Thi Anh, a shy and soft-spoken 20-year-old, who was one of those picked and 19 at the time.
The selection process began at 11 a.m. By 1 p.m. the teens were on the road. Soon after they left, a Catalyst employee who tried to dissuade the teens from going told one member of the community to call the police.
Most of the young women had never been far from home by themselves. Within a few hours, one figured out they were not heading to Ho Chi Minh City, Truong and two other teens recalled.
The girls, using a cell phone of them had, began calling home, and eventually one of their mothers called the police.
Some of the teens began to cry. They had arrived in An Bien City, south of Rach Gia, and were to travel to the coast and board a fishing boat to Cambodia.
“We were very afraid,” Truong said. “We did not know where we were.”
But police, who had tracked other human traffickers taking the same route, found them at 10 p.m. They arrested the woman who was escorting them. The man got away.
Around 4 a.m. the next day, the teens were back in Rach Gia.
It is unclear what the community learned from the narrow escape. Catalyst Foundation representatives held community meetings afterwards. “We said, ‘This is what will happen: Your child will be raped, and not by one person, but by many people,'” said the organization’s co-founder Nguyen. But she can’t be sure it won’t happen again.
For those living in brutal conditions, Nguyen said, “It is a lot of money.”
Seventeen-year-old Truong, who lives in a cramped thatched home elevated over water with nine family members, said she has not thought much about what would have happened to her had she ended up in Cambodia.
“I don’t think about that,” she said passively. “If it had happened, it would have been because it was my destiny. That’s the life.”
Bay Area groups working to prevent human trafficking among Vietnam”s poor:
Aid to Children Without Parents
Has provided assistance to refugee and other poor children since 1988. In recent years, the organization began focusing on preventing young people from being drawn into the sex trade. It has funded the renovation of schools and completed a community center. Created a culinary school in the Central Vietnam city of Hue to give at-risk young women skills. Has also built schools in Cambodia for poor Vietnamese communities in that country.
U.S. address: 134 Martinvale Lane, San Jose, 95119. Phone: 408-225-0405; 408-225-8302.
Vietnam address: 14 Nguyen Cong Tru, Hue.
Web site: www.acwp.org
The Asia Foundation
Sponsors discussions between Vietnam and its neighbors, Cambodia and China, on preventing human trafficking. Also works with partners to create a number of programs to provide economic opportunities for poor women, access to credit and vocational training. Works with National Legal Aid Agency to offer victims of trafficking legal services.
U.S. address: 465 California St., 9th Floor, San Francisco, 94104. Phone: 415-982-4640
Vietnam address: 10-03 Prime Centre, 53 Quang Trung St., Hanoi. Phone: 84 43 9433263.
Web site: asiafoundation.org/
Provides an array of educational programs, from vocational training to a primary school, to poor residents of the South Vietnam city of Rach Gia. It also works to raise awareness about the dangers of sex traffickers. The non-profit assists the poor in Dong Thap Province along the Cambodian border with scholarships and life-skills training.
U.S. address: 710 St. Olaf Ave., Ste. 100 Northfield, Minn., 55057
Vietnam address: 231/10 Bui Thi Xuan St, Ward 1, Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Phone: 84 83 8476293
Web site: www.catalystfoundation.org
Pacific Links Foundation (An giang/Dong thap Alliance for the Prevention of Trafficking ADAPT)
It works in partnership with two other Bay Area-based non-profits, Oakland-based East Meets West Foundation and International Children Assistance Network in San Jose. The alliance provides an array of programs “” from scholarships to vocational training to job placement to grassroots advocacy “” along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border to prevent young women from becoming entangled in human trafficking. It operates a reintegration shelter for women who have been victims of human trafficking.
U.S. address: 534 Valley Way, Milpitas, 95035. Phone: 510-435-3035
Vietnam address: 163/A9 Huynh Thuc Khang, TP Long Xuyen, An Giang. Phone 84 76 3853888
Web site: pacificlinks.org
By John Boudreau