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'These women may only get one chance to call for help': A Vietnamese anti-slavery crusader on life under lockdown

by Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 April 2020 15:25 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Residential houses are seen reflected on a lake in Hanoi March 6, 2014. REUTERS/Kham

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'When travel restrictions forced us to suspend rescue operations earlier this year, I was communicating with about 30 women in China. All of them were trapped and waiting for our help.'

This is the third article in a series examining how coronavirus lockdowns are affecting  vulnerable people around the world. 

PHNOM PENH, April 16, 2020

No two days are the same for Van Ngoc Ta.

In his myriad roles with the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, the 38-year-old leads investigations, plans cross-border raids, goes undercover to implement them, and represents victims of slavery in court.

From its base in Hanoi, the charity says it had rescued more than 900 people - mostly women and children - from forced labour and the sex trade before the virus struck.

The trafficking route from Southeast Asia to Europe was exposed when 39 Vietnamese were found dead in the back of a lorry in Britain last year, but 80% of trafficking victims from Vietnam end up over the border in China, state media reports.

When borders were shut and travel restrictions imposed due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, Blue Dragon was forced to suspend its rescue operations from China.

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At the time, Van had 30 live cases - women trapped in brothels or forced marriages but secretly communicating with him and waiting for word on how he was going to get them out.

This is his story:

I can be woken up at 2 am by a message; I must reply to this message immediately. Then, I must wait for a response - even if it means I stay up all night. We understand that these women may only get one chance to call for help, and if we miss it, we might miss them for life.

A big part of my job is building a rapport with these women, to give them hope and inspire them through the situation they are facing. They could have been sold into prostitution or forced marriage. They have lost their freedom. If they see no hope, they may choose a negative way to escape the situation.

Some might harm themselves, or some might run away with no idea where they are going - and then they are in grave danger. They can be caught, they can be tortured. If the trafficker is particularly angry and vengeful, he might sell her to be used as a sex slave on a fishing boat.

There was a woman who was caught and killed, after she lost hope and tried to escape. The traffickers threw her body in a well - and we went to China to bring her ashes home. We know the result of failure can be the life of a person.

When travel restictions forced us to suspend rescue operations earlier this year, I was communicating with about 30 women in China. All of them were trapped and waiting for our help. It was a painful realisation - but it was out of our hands.

I knew that the women understood first hand the situation, that we likely would not be able to reach them due to travel bans, but I could never tell them that we had suspended operations. Never. They need to have hope.

Two weeks ago, the night before I had a big court case against a very dangerous trafficker, I received a voice message from one of them. She said: 'please send my deepest apologies to my parents', and she told me her personal details again, and told me that I should tell the police she had committed suicide.

She apologised for not being stronger but said she would rather die than spend another day living as a slave.

I was frozen in shock. I was helpless. I couldn't do anything. She's in China. I'm in Vietnam. I stayed up all night trying to get a reply from her. Nothing.

The next day I went with no sleep to testify against the trafficker. He did not admit anything, just said he was innocent despite all the evidence.

After three days, he was convicted and sent to prison. The same day, I learned that the woman from the voice message had used a knife to try to end her life. I did not ask exactly what she did, but she was in hospital in a critical condition.

I advised her to stay in the hospital and recover. She was not in good shape but she was alive. I told her that we would do our best to bring her home as soon as possible.  

Rescue missions are always very complex - they can take days or months. But we have a lot of experience over 14 years; with a strong network of trusted people, we have found ways to complete rescues without making a big noise.

She is still recovering. But now, working in these difficult conditions, we have found a way to move forward with other rescues and successfully completed five.

It takes longer and is more dangerous, but it works.

Any views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Related stories:

Trafficked 'brides' stuck in China due to coronavirus after fleeing abuse

Wedlocked: tangled webs trap Cambodian 'brides' in China

Southeast Asia urged to improve women's rights to stop China bride trafficking

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