Notes from the Field

In a Rising Vietnam, Safe Migration and Awareness of Risks Critical to Combating Trafficking

March 2, 2011

Mai and Hoa, both 15-year-old residents of Can Tho City with three more years of secondary school left before graduating, have decided to drop out in order to find work to support their families. Can Tho City is a major economic and tourist hub of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, but residents of this predominantly agricultural region find it difficult to find employment opportunities as the country shifts increasingly to manufacturing.

While Mai and Hoa were looking for jobs, they met Nguyet, a neighbor who was working in Ho Chi Minh City. Impressed by Nguyet’s fancy clothes and jewelry and tempted by her promise of high-paying jobs, the two girls decided to follow Nguyet to the city. Nguyet advised them not to let their parents or schools know before they set off.

Instead of taking them to the promised jobs in Ho Chi Minh City, however, Nguyet took the girls to the border to sell them to a Cambodian brothel. In a moment of astonishing good fortune, the group was stopped by Vietnamese border guards who arrested Nguyet for human trafficking. Safe and relieved, Mai and Hoa were taken home to their families.

The curtain fell, the lights came on and applause and heart-felt cries echoed from the audience. Some even threw angry looks at the actor who played Nguyet, the trafficker, and cheered as Mai and Hoa walked off stage. The role play was written and performed by secondary students in Can Tho on the occasion of Vietnamese Women’s Day last October.

The scenario was inspired by just one of many realities girls in rural Mekong Delta face. While there was a happy ending here, things don’t end so well for others. From 1998 to 2006, according to the Vietnamese government, about 4,500 Vietnamese women and children were trafficked across the border or reported missing, although most experts agree that the real figure is likely to be much higher. Fear of stigma and revenge attacks means that many girls who escape after being trafficked keep silent upon their return. Their stories are rarely shared.

Trafficking in persons, whether in the form of foreign marriage, tourism, or false promises of employment, is prevalent in the Mekong Delta, particularly among young women and children. A lack of knowledge about the laws and their rights, as well as a lack of life skills, means many young people leave their villages in search of economic opportunities without being aware of the dangers associated with labor migration or the traps set by traffickers.

The Asia Foundation first conducted these drama role-plays and other interactive art-based performances in 2007 in 16 schools in the Central region of Vietnam. We have found that these drama scenarios developed from real life experiences of local people are much more effective in teaching girls and their families about the risks of human trafficking and what they could do to prevent them. Interactive local performances like this one with Nguyet, the trafficker, and victims Mai and Hoa, as well as folk songs and poetry, have proven to be powerful communication tools for young people and adults in the Mekong Delta. Fashion shows, games shows, crosswords, quizzes, tests, safe migration puzzles with safe migration themes have all been used to entertain and educate youth in our efforts to combat and prevent human trafficking. In addition to learning about how to migrate safely and about labor rights, young people are also trained in other life skills, such as how to communicate, how to ask questions, how to seek advice, problem solving, self management, and negotiation to help them navigate life after school.

Specific cases reported by educators in the participating schools show that young people who have seen and participated in these safe migration communication activities are more likely to seek advice before migrating for jobs and search for as much information as possible about their destination. Previously, teachers and principals were often confronted by the sudden absence of students from schools, but these days, more students are actively coming to them for advice. The opportunity to know about the important decisions their students are considering and to discuss the pros and cons of such plans with them has bolstered the role of schools in the communities. The positive reactions from educators, parents, and students alike have been heartwarming. As a result, over the last four years, we’ve expanded the program to 101 schools and 44 communes across six provinces in the Central and Mekong Delta regions with funding support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other donors.

As my colleagues working to combat trafficking know well, changing people’s attitudes and understanding toward migration is difficult – changing behavior even more so. However, witnessing tangible results from the success of this program drives us to continue finding sustainable and innovative approaches to promote safe migration and prevent human trafficking in Vietnam.

Dang Thi Hanh is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Vietnam. She can be reached at dhanh@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Dang Thi Hanh

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