(Names of the survivors have been changed)
“When I got back from my night shift, no one was home. I tried to call and look for my wife, but no one knew where she was. I was so scared.” Minh recounted. Little did he know, his wife, Sa, and their roommate, Thy, were kept in a hidden shed 30 kilometers away, waiting to be sold and become wives to Chinese men.
“Anyone can be a trafficker.”
In mid-2018, Sa and Minh left Mường Chà (Điện Biên province) to work at a construction site near the Lào Cai Border gate as they would for several months every year to save up for Tết – the most important holiday of the year.
Photo 1: With limited farming land and harsh weather conditions, Mường Chà was not exactly a “dreamland,” pushing waves of people to migrate and find work elsewhere.
That Tết almost never came. One day, Sa and her roommate Thy was invited to hang out with some friends from home. But after getting the girls in a cab, the “friends” drove them to a dark, empty road where two Chinese traffickers were already waiting.
Many victims knew their traffickers from their social circles, such as extended family members, acquaintances, or trade partners. “Most of the cases happened in secluded areas where traffickers lived among local people and approached women and girls who had limited social resources and exposure. Between 2015 and 2019, the Police Department of Điện Biên province identified and investigated 85 trafficking cases and rescued 48 victims. Among these cases, 11 traffickers were from Mường Chà,” Major Hoàng Văn Dân, Vice Captain of Criminal – Economic – Drug Team, Mường Chà District Police Department.
A miraculous escape
“Follow, or we’ll kill you and throw your bodies this river,” the traffickers gruntled as they pushed Sa and Thy into the shed and locked the door with a thick, heavy chain. Curling up in a corner, Sa could not think of anything other than how to escape this nightmare. Two days passed. Haggard and shaken by exhaustion, Sa pleaded for some food - “If I die, you will lose your money anyway.” The guarding man agreed, but on the condition that Thy must go with him.
After the lock clicked, Sa rose and started examining her chances. The shed was shoddily put up with low walls and a bamboo ceiling with a hollow spot near the rim. Using every last bit of strength, Sa climbed up to the spot, pushed her way out, and jumped off the roof. Once her feet touched the ground, Sa ran as fast as she could until she reached a construction site and asked for help.
Photo 2: Sa’s miraculous escape – Drawing by participants of World Vision’s communication sessions on human trafficking prevention.
Getting justice served
The next few days were like a fastened tape to Sa’s mind: the Chinese police took her information and brought her back to the Lào Cai border gate; she was able to call her dad, and within half a day, Minh was there to bring her home. After getting back to Lào Cai, she reported to the police immediately, hoping to save Thy as soon as possible. However, it was not until eight months later that Thy was rescued, and together, they testified against the traffickers who were sentenced to several years.
Sa was brave to come forward with her report, but it was not the case with most victims. “Due to the close-knit nature of minority communities, many trafficking or abuse cases involving woman and child victims remained unreported,” shared Major Hoàng Văn Dân. Trauma, social stigma, and fear of retribution are among the reasons why victims do not report their traffickers. In addition, many survivors whose years were unjustly stolen found it difficult to reconcile between their old and new families.
Getting back on one’s feet
Coming back home to her young children, Sa was happy. But the financial worries started to cloud her joy. Sa could not, and would not, come back to China anymore. After careful consideration, the couple decided that Minh would leave to work in Quảng Ninh while Sa stayed back to take care of the kids.
Getting informed about Sa’s vulnerable situation, World Vision Việt Nam quickly registered Sa for the Human Trafficking Prevention for Women and Girls Project’s support. To help her build a stronger homefront, World Vision provided her with husbandry training, livestock animals, and building materials to set up a cow and chicken barn. In addition, understanding communal support and social connections play an integral part in returnees’ reintegration process, World Vision invited Sa to join the village’s Women’s Club. At first, like many other returnees, Sa was not too keen on attending those club meetings, as she thought she would be judged. However, after months of persistent support from World Vision and fellow club members, Sa started to feel valued and comfortable sharing her stories and helping others be aware of traffickers’ trickery.
Photo 3: World Vision Việt Nam’s interventions aim to enhance social connection and support for at-risk members and survivors through community programs, such as Women’s Clubs and Saving groups.
“Sa’s transformation was truly a work of trust and time for healing. When she first joined our Program, she was reserved and avoided the trafficking topic all together. With time and support, she became more open and proactive in participating in the Women’s Club activities and sharing with her fellow sisters,” Ms. Hoa, Project Coordinator of the Human Trafficking Prevention for Women and Girls (HTPWG) Project, World Vision Việt Nam, shared.
In addition, through the club’s Saving group, Sa and her club members were encouraged to set up a saving plan for themselves and hold each other accountable for monthly contributions – anything from one to five or ten dollars – to the group’s commonwealth. “To me, the biggest change must be the Saving group. Before this, the more we worked, the more we spent, so we didn’t have any savings. But now, we’re reaching our goal of rebuilding our old house without having to borrow too much,” Sa shared proudly.
Gradually, by her enthusiasm and sense of responsibility, Sa was entrusted to become the Women Club’s secretary and the Saving Group’s leader. Under her leadership, the Saving Group was expanding: from the initial nine members, the club recruited seven more. Together, they saved up a total of 10 million dong, which helped its members pay for urgent expenses, such as tuition and vet medicines. “When I was nominated to be the Group’s leader, I was worried that I might not have what it takes. But after getting World Vision’s training in bookkeeping and leadership, I was able to do the job well,” Sa smiled.
“This time, we’re better prepared.”
Even though Sa thought she finally had a firm footing in Mường Chà, the never-ending financial burden still forced her to leave. This time, Sa and her husband were coming for the coffee bean harvest season in Đắk Nông – almost 1,800 kilometers away from home.
“Due to Mường Chà’s limited resources, most returnees would continue to migrate and find work elsewhere, making them vulnerable to trafficking and illegal migration traps. But we understand their position, and we try to accompany them the best we could by informing them about safe job opportunities, providing training on human trafficking prevention, and keeping in touch with their families. For Sa’s case, World Vision registered her children our Children’s Club, and we still check in with them regularly,” Ms. Hoa explained.
Photo 4: Sa shared: “I just hope that we can pay off our debts with this trip so we can stay at home and raise our kids here”
“This time, from World Vision’s training, before taking on any job, I know to look for basic information first, like salary, the employer’s name, and terms of the contract,” Sa recounted her lesson eagerly. “The kids will stay with our parents and sister-in-law, and they will also be cared for by the Children’s Club’s officers, so we feel quite relieved. I just hope that we can pay off our debts with this trip so we can stay at home and raise our kids here,” – Sa ended her story.
Mường Chà, along with other border districts in Điện Biên, is a “hot region” for human trafficking rings in Việt Nam and the Mekong Delta Region. World Vision Việt Nam is working closely with government agencies and communities to enhance at-risk members' and survivors’ awareness, foster behavioral change, and equip them with the necessary tools to secure and improve livelihoods, thus contributing to addressing the root cause of human trafficking. Specifically, between 2020 and 2022, World Vision Việt Nam’s Human Trafficking Prevention for Women and Girls Project helped 900 women and 630 girls aged 12-30 improve their knowledge and skills to protect themselves against trafficking risks and 1,200 households with former victims and/or high-risk members to develop their livelihoods and reintegrate their communities.