A Hidden Crime

By Yuval Ben-David

The Southeast Asian sex industry is now a notorious symbol of globalization, where the vectors of migration and capital come crashing into each other like two Boeings full of stereotypical red-faced sex tourists. Still, it is the prostitutes who often travel farther. “You don’t do sex work near your home. You go far away,” said Oanh Khuat, a Vietnamese civil society advocate who works with marginalized populations. A 2005 World Fellow, Oanh is the founder and executive director of the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI), which works to advance the rights of marginalized groups like sex workers, drug users, and men who have sex with men. In her experience as a civil society activist, Oanh has found that many sex workers leave their countryside homes for cities like Hanoi in the north, or travel from Hanoi to the even more bustling Ho Chi Minh City in the south. And according to the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report—the industry bible—Vietnam is a source rather than a receiver in the global network of trafficking; Vietnamese women can be found in brothels as close as China, or as far away as Russia or Ghana.

This global scattering of Vietnamese sex workers is what makes trafficking so hard for Vietnam to combat. Whose problem is it? In the host country, the victim of trafficking often becomes an illegal sex worker or an undocumented laborer, turning into a criminal herself. And in the source country—Vietnam—trafficking is merely conceptual. Oanh was quick to point out that most victims aren’t explicitly forced into sex work. “Kidnapping is very rare,” she said. Instead, traffickers lure rural women with the promise of a waitressing or service job in the city or in another country. Those women owe exorbitant transportation fees to the traffickers. And when the job never materializes, they might resort to sex work to pay up. Remember, Oanh said, the industry has a high, stable demand and low barriers to entry—anyone can do it.

But even where trafficking takes more coercive forms, the Vietnamese government has found itself paralyzed. Take the case of one 16-year-old girl from a town on the Chinese border. She didn’t think much of it when her boyfriend invited her to go shopping in China for the day. But when her boyfriend ended up selling her to a Chinese family as a bride, the girl—who spoke no Chinese, didn’t know her location and had her papers confiscated by her captors—was stuck in place. The man who told me her story, Vi, chose not to disclose his last name because of what happened next. After six months in China, the trafficked girl got ahold of a phone and dialed one of her former teachers. The teacher turned to Vi’s organization, the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, an NGO that, along with operating two shelters for street children in Hanoi, runs occasional vigilante rescue operations for trafficking victims. Vi’s team tracked the girl’s location through a computer IP address, and immediately spent three days combing the Chinese city for any sign of her location, using only her vague description of the world outside her window. Eventually, Blue Dragon instructed the girl to flee her apartment and get on a bus that dropped her off at a predetermined drop-off location. Crossing the border back into Vietnam, the rescue team faced a final obstacle: the Chinese government. Blue Dragon teams regularly detour clandestinely through the jungle to bypass Chinese police stations, which would stop them for illegally smuggling persons. The girl’s story speaks to the ways Vietnamese NGOs must work hand-in-hand with the government, each doing the work the other cannot. Because the Vietnamese police can’t conduct raids in China, they effectively outsource border-crossing rescue missions to Blue Dragon. And thanks to their mutual trust, the Vietnamese border police cooperates and lets the Blue Dragon team cross, even though the rescued girls do not have any papers.

Relying on NGOs is convenient for Vietnam’s government, which until January 2012 had no law on the books regarding sex trafficking. Georges Blanchard, the founder of Alliance Anti Trafic, remembered the days in the late 1990s when a shelter for victims had to cloak its mission with a euphemistic name: “Training Center for Women” (it did, indeed, provide vocational training). Blanchard credits American diplomats with pressuring the Vietnamese into joining a regional taskforce on trafficking in 2004 and then, in 2012, finally signing into law an omnibus anti-trafficking bill that prohibited both sex and labor trafficking—the first ever mention of sex trafficking in Vietnamese law. But Vu Thi Thu Phuong, the Vietnam project coordinator for the UN’s Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, Blanchard, and other Vietnamese activists remain concerned. In Ho Chi Minh City, when the sun falls low, men have not stopped riding by on bikes, whispering, “Girls, girls,” as they pass. To the tourists of Vietnam, the cautious girls, and the NGOs that rise to action, this whispering game is far from discreet, but for the government, human trafficking remains, as Vu puts it, “a hidden crime”: a problem concealed between international borders and behind its nebulous concept. NGOs are still filling the void of government action, as the omnibus 2012 bill reveals itself to be nearly impotent. The basic word “trafficking” had fallen through the legal cracks. The government forgot to define it.

Yuval Ben-David ’16 is a History major in Silliman College. Contact him at yuval.ben-david@yale.edu.