Sunk into the mountain range that connects Vietnam to China sits the Vietnamese border town of Lao Cai. A sprawling concrete mess, the town has shot up over the last few decades in response to the increasing amount of trade between the two countries, luring in people from the surrounding mountains looking for an alternative livelihood to farming. Living in stark contrast to the farming communities they have left behind, the open market seems to have bought a better standard of life.
In a small building tucked down an alleyway, the girls at the Lao Cai shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking hold a different perspective. All recently returned from China, they wait for a position to open up in one of Vietnam's more permanent shelters. For many of them, they can't return home and, with a constant influx of new returnees, they can't stay here for long.
The statistics on the human trafficking in Vietnam vary hugely and official information is limited. The Vietnam Ministry of Public Security offer the official figure of 2,935 Vietnamese victims of human trafficking between 2004 and 2009, while Hagar International claim the considerably larger total of over 400,000 victims since 1990.
Madam Thuy, Director of the Human Trafficking department at the Centre for Women's Development, reinforces the general consensus that the phenomenon is on the rise and that it cannot simply be explained by looking to poverty.
"There are many factors that contribute to the growth in trafficking, but most common across all cases is the disintegration of the family structure" says Thuy.
The stories of the girls in the shelters reinforce her point. The vast majority of them where originally sold by either family members or close friends.
Linh is a 25 year old woman who was bought back from China last year and lives now in Hanoi's Peace House Shelter. Born into a family of eight, she grew up working the fields and looking after the chickens in a small mountain village. As she grew up her siblings were allocated different roles, her two brother sent off to university while her older sister was pulled out of school to be married.
'We lived separate lives, even when we were all living together. My brothers treated the rest of us like we were servants to them, and my father didn't care about any of us.'
The Confucian values of authority and filial loyalty hold strong in Vietnam, permeating the language, religion, culture and politics. However, it is under increasing pressure from the younger generations, influenced by western ideals and the divisive nature of incoming money. Thuy suggests it is the conflict this clash brings, between familial tradition and modernization, that is at the root of the problem.
When Linh was taken to Hekou in China by an aunt under the pretext of going on a shopping trip, she was just pleased at the gesture of generosity. 'Looking back now I don't know how I could have been so stupid. She'd never shown any interest in me before' she says.
She was left with two Chinese ladies who took her to market and explained that she was to be sold as a wife. Over the next 5 months she would be sold at 6 different markets, being picked up by 'dealers' each time before being sold on. Finally she was bought and forced into marriage with a 30 year old man.
In contrast to Vietnam, in China it is the demand for an ideal family model that fuels the industry. The one child policy results in a preference for male children and subsequently a shortage of girls available for marriage. Unlike the global trend of trafficking for prostitution and labour, from the north of Vietnam the majority of victims are sold as wives and sons.
Linh's job was to produce a baby. When she refused to sleep with her husband he beat and raped her and, when he wasn't around, his father did the same.
Determined not to become pregnant, Linh seized her chance one rainy night and escaped, running to the local police station. From there she was taken back to Lao Cai where she was given a bed in the shelter. There were fifteen other girls there with her, all with similar stories to tell.
'None of us knew what would happen to us.' Linh says. 'We didn't know whether we were guilty or innocent.'
After 5 months at the Peace House Shelter in Hanoi, Linh understands clearly that she is the victim, not the offender, in this story. Yet for her family and neighbors back home, this distinction still isn't clear and Linh remains ostracized, unable to return home. With the support of the shelter, she can start a new life in Hanoi. For many others though, such help is not available and, socially outcast, they often fall into crime, most commonly becoming traffickers.
'The industry is growing' says Thuy. 'Until the returnees are seen as victims, it's not going to stop.'
(Linh's name has been changed.)
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