By Michael Brosowski | This story originally appeared on the Blue Dragon blog.
Every morning, millions of people wake up far from home, in slavery. Children in factories and on farms. Youth forced to beg and steal, or sell on the streets. Girls and women in brothels.
“Hanh” (not her real name) was 17 years old when she was rescued by the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation from a brothel in China. She had been tricked by a friendly classmate, who had helped arrange for her to be kidnapped from northern Vietnam and sold into a Chinese brothel, where she was raped day after day for six months. The brothel was located underground: from the street, customers walked down a flight of stairs into a windowless basement that housed a dozen or so rooms for Chinese and Vietnamese sex workers.
Hanh made friends with a Chinese sex worker who was free to come and go, and earned her trust to borrow a mobile phone. The sex worker, in her 20s, knew that she could be in terrible trouble for allowing Hanh to use her phone, but caved in to Hanh’s pleas and gave her the phone for just two days.
Those two days were all we had to find and rescue Hanh.
We flew in to the nearest big city and then drove overland to the town where we believed Hanh was being held. Our only information was that the street frontage was red, and the brothel was below street level. That wasn’t much to go on, but a rapid search through the main streets lead us to the right location in just one day.
Finding the brothel turned out to be the easy part. We had never engineered an escape from an underground site before, and security here was the highest we’d ever seen. Hanh revealed over the phone that there was another Vietnamese girl there, “Thi,” who also had been kidnapped; she was just 16. Neither of the girls was ever allowed outside without a security guard.
Calling police wasn’t an option. Hanh had been rescued by police once already. They had raided the brothel and took her back to the Vietnamese border and released her — but her traffickers knew she was coming. Freedom was only an illusion. She was grabbed immediately, taken straight back to the brothel and forced right back to work.
We were going to have to do it ourselves.
Next door to the brothel was a hair salon. Hanh and her friend asked permission to get their hair done, which was a fairly normal thing to do. The security guard stood inside the doorway of the brothel while they stepped next door, as they had done many times before.
This time, though, we had a car parked across the street with the motor running. As the guard stood dumbly in the doorway, the girls dashed across the street and jumped into the escape car. We were racing down the street before the doors were even closed.
It was all over in about five seconds.
We drove straight back towards Vietnam, over 450 kilometres away. To be doubly sure of safety, we switched cars twice along the way. The girls hid in the backseat, half thrilled and half terrified.
Even a change of car wasn’t enough. Long before we reached the border, a Chinese patrol pulled our car over — apparently at random, but the coincidence seemed too great. For a while, the whole rescue was in jeopardy. Thankfully, we have some friends in the Chinese police, and a few phone calls were enough to have us on our way again after 40 minutes.
Back at the China-Vietnam border, the police on both sides were helpful and supportive. They expedited the border crossing so that the girls could cross over the next morning. A lot of paperwork is involved in getting a victim of trafficking back across the border, so the Blue Dragon staff worked through the night to complete the procedures.
That night was the girls’ first night of real freedom in months, but still they couldn’t sleep. They longed to see their families, and until they were safely home, they feared that something could yet go wrong.
The next morning was not uneventful, but it was certainly a success. The “handover” took place between the Chinese and Vietnamese police, and Hanh and Thi were officially returned to Vietnam.
While the danger of anything happening to Hanh now is extremely low, she has to go on living with the knowledge that terrible events were started at the hands of a classmate. People who know her have abused and exploited her in the worst possible way. How can a 17-year-old girl cope with such betrayal at the hands of people she knew and trusted?
Blue Dragon is a charity dedicated to rescuing kids in crisis in Vietnam. Their work includes emergency care and services for street kids, education opportunities for children from rural communities, and rescue operations and advocacy for youth trafficked into the child labour and sex trade.
Since 2005, Blue Dragon has rescued 492 victims of human trafficking, including 121 young women from forced marriages and brothels; the youngest girl was seven years old when she was trafficked. In addition to rescue efforts, Blue Dragon provides advocacy support to victims of trafficking in court and training to authorities on how to prevent trafficking.
Read more about organisations helping to improve the lives of girls around the globe in our special-edition digital magazine in honour of International Women’s Day.