Communist Vietnam -- Human Trafficker ExtraordinaireBy Michael Benge
Vietnam is now the proud possessor of the inglorious title "The Worst Human Rights Violator in Southeast Asia," according to recent testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. State-affiliated labor export companies are major suppliers of men, women, and children to the forced labor and sex trafficking markets, while government officials profit from kickbacks.
Statistics on Vietnam's human trafficking range widely; though accurate information about this communist country is hard to find. Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security offers an official figure of 2,935 Vietnamese who were subjected to human trafficking between 2004 and 2009. However, international organizations report a far larger number; more than 400,000 victims since 1990. Even this covers only those reported as victims, omitting untold tens of thousands of abuses that go unnoticed, especially in the labor force.
Exporting workers is nothing new for Vietnam. After the 1975 communist takeover, hundreds of thousands of laborers were sent to the Soviet Union and European Eastern-Bloc countries as a form of war debt payment. Many ended up jobless, in debt, and stranded. Vietnam quickly graduated from supplying forced labor to trafficking women and children as sex slaves.
State-Sanctioned Sex Slavery
Vietnam is a primary supplier for commercial sexual exploitation, as well as forced labor -- and some who start out as laborers also wind up as sex slaves. Fraudulent or misrepresented marriages are one method by which Vietnamese women are exploited. The lure of marriage to a man in a comparatively rich country, coupled with a promised payment of up to $5,000 (ten times the average annual wage in Vietnam), is often too great a temptation for rural women and their impoverished families to resist. Women and children are sent to Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Macau, the Middle East, and Europe. In turn, Cambodian children are trafficked to urban centers in Vietnam. Increasingly, Vietnam is a destination for child sex tourism, with perpetrators visiting from Japan, the Republic of Korea, China, Taiwan, the UK, Australia, Europe, and the U.S. Women are also shipped to other countries to serve as surrogate mothers. Some are forced to produce babies for families that cannot have their own, while others have their babies sold for adoption by foreigners, primarily from Western countries.
Russia: a Case in Point
Ms. Hui Danh recently testified about a sex-trafficking and extortion ring that lured young Vietnamese women to Russia with promises of high-paying jobs (by Vietnamese standards) as waitresses. Instead they were sold to brothels in Moscow. The operation was run by government-sanctioned labor agencies, which provided kickbacks to Vietnamese officials. The passports of the young women were confiscated; they received only a pittance in pay, and had no health care or any way to return home. Some girls were held captive in Russia for more than four years, and were savagely beaten if they tried to leave the brothel. Even though they were being held against their will, they still had to pay rent and were charged for their meager food and clothing.
Ms. Danh's younger sister Be Huong was one of the sex slaves. After several months, her impoverished parents received a call asking for money to pay for medical expenses. They scraped together $300 and sent it to her. A few weeks later she called again saying that the employment agency in Vietnam had agreed to let her return home, but she would need $2,000 for air travel. Ms. Dang, who was living in the U.S., borrowed the money and sent it to the employment agency. Soon the amount was raised to $4,000, and later to $6,000; clearly, it was extortion.
In February of this year, 13 months after her enslavement, Be Huong escaped from the brothel, along with three other victims. She was able to contact the Consular Envoy, Nguyen Dong Trieu, in the Vietnamese Embassy in Moscow and begged for his help. Trieu told her that prostitution was not legal in Russia and said, "Whoever brought you here, ask them to take you home." Two days later, Be Huong and the other three victims were recaptured by the brothel guards, and the three girls with her were severely beaten. Be Huong later learned that the Madame of the brothel in Moscow was a good friend of the Consular Envoy, who had betrayed the girls.
When Ms. Danh learned of her sister's plight, she contacted two U.S. non-government organizations; Boat People SOS, and the Coalition to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery in Asia, which put her in contact with Congressman Al Green and the State Department. Through their efforts and with assistance from the media, Be Huong was returned to Vietnam, but not without costs. First, she was forced by the brothel Madame -- Thuy An -- to call her parents and ask them to withdraw their complaint to the Vietnamese police about the employment agency. Ms. Danh also had to submit a written apology to the Madame for wrongly accusing her of sex trafficking. Finally, she was also forced to write a letter to Vietnamese officials in Moscow thanking them for helping with Be Huong's repatriation. Only then was she allowed to leave.
Finally, Be Huong was allowed to go to the Vietnamese Embassy; there she was told by staff member Kien that her release was conditional. She had to write a letter stating what she had told her relatives about Madam Thuy An was inaccurate, and one thanking the embassy officials and Madam Thuy An for having helped her with repatriation.
The Vietnamese Embassy had of course done nothing, nor had Madam Thuy An, for it was only through diplomatic and media pressure that Be Huong was allowed to go home. Through continued pressure, six other victims were finally released and returned to Vietnam. Eight others remain enslaved by Madame Thuy An, with the assistance of the Vietnamese Embassy in Moscow.
Vietnam started its labor trafficking by taking a page from the playbook of communist Field Marshal Tito, who exported surplus labor as a safety valve to reduce resistance amongst Yugoslavia's youth. Tito was an extreme and ruthless dictator (though quite popular in the West) who served as "President for Life" until his death in 1980.
Communist Vietnam now exports a great share of its labor force in an attempt to quell the unrest fermenting in that country, as well to increase revenue; in 2007, Vietnamese working in foreign countries sent home the equivalent of US $2 billion. Vietnam has a labor force of more than 51.4 million workers, and 70% of the population is under 30 years of age. Despite the labor trafficking, 12% -- 10 million -- of Vietnam's remaining workers are jobless, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The Vietnamese government set a goal to send 500,000 workers overseas in 2005, and the number has been increasing ever since. In 2008, Vietnam reached an agreement with Qatar to increase the number of workers to be sent to the Middle East from 10,000 to ten times that number by the end of 2010.
The Art of Trafficking
Many labor export companies in Vietnam are part of intricate trafficking syndicates and extortion rings, and government officials and banks are frequently involved. Applicants are deceived by contracts -- dubbed hop dong noi -- "domestic contract," that describe the type of work, good working conditions, and decent pay; however, they may have to pay as much as $10,000 just to apply. Applicants are often encouraged to seek a loan, such as one from a state-owned Agricultural and Rural Development Bank, to cover the fee, using their parents' property as collateral. If the loan is not enough, the parents have to mortgage or sell their remaining properties.
After the non-refundable application fee is paid, the workers are often given the real contract to sign only a day or so before leaving. This typically stipulates different terms than the original contract, using legal terms they cannot understand. Once in the destination country (which may not be the one they signed up for), the workers' passports and documents are confiscated and they are forced to sign yet another contract, hop dong ngoai -- "foreign contract," in a foreign language they cannot understand at all. Thus they find themselves working longer hours under substandard conditions, for much less pay than promised, with little or no access to medical care. Many times, workers are not fully paid and are held in debt bondage, while being forced to make mandatory monthly payments to the labor export company. As a result, workers cannot pay off their loans, have no money to return home, and their families lose their land and other properties.
The Vietnamese Embassies provide little or no help to these exploited people. True, the Vietnamese government has passed laws against human trafficking, and prosecutes a few cases now and then; but that is just window dressing. It's a charade to fool the UN, the U.S., and other gullible donor countries into believing that Vietnam's communist government is addressing the issue. Meanwhile, the labor and sex trade goes on with a wink and a nod from officials who are on the take. By the way, did you know it's against the law in Vietnam to report corruption?
And the band plays on...
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