The Crisis of Human Trafficking in Vietnam

Early on October 23, 2019, Mo Robinson, a youngish man from Northern Ireland, drove a lorry container through Essex, England. It was a refrigerated unit that could freeze as low as -25⁰C. The lorry was registered in Bulgaria. One official described the conditions inside the lorry as “absolutely horrendous.” At least they were for the 39 people found inside dead when the lorry was stopped by police.[1]

Ten of the victims were teenagers and eight of them were women. Police identified all of the victims as originating in central or northern Vietnam.  One of them, Pham Thi Tra My, sent a text to her family only hours before the police discovered the bodies. It said that her “trip to a foreign land has failed,”[2] and she was “dying because I cannot breathe.”

Pham’s parents paid £30,000 to transport her from Vietnam to the UK. As part of a caravan of over 100 migrants, Pham was traveling through China across Europe in the lorry as a means to pay off her family’s debt. She had previously worked in Japan but was not earning enough income to pay the fees and decided to try for the UK where salaries are higher.[3] Though many classify them as smuggling victims, the specter of human trafficking looms large over the international community’s response to the Essex Lorry.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion . . . for the purpose of exploitation.”[4] Pham and the other victims of the Essex Lorry are considered by one local expert to be voluntary travelers, and more victims of smuggling rather than trafficking as they “voluntarily wanted to go,” a status which obfuscates the “threat or use of force” requirement of the human trafficking definition.[5] However, one may argue that the “threat or use of force” can be used in the “transportation” of victims and thus, by coercing £30,000 out of Pham’s family, the culprits could be deemed traffickers. Regardless of the distinction, Vietnam is treating the Essex Lorry victims as trafficked.

In Vietnam, human trafficking is often seen as the responsibility of the destination country, not the source. According to one opinion,  “the place where people go missing is the place that bears responsibility.”[6] Experts in Vietnam claimed that “Human trafficking in Viet Nam was on the increase because it was difficult to control.”[7] And while the government has instituted a law against human trafficking, there seems little urgency surrounding the issue.

In response to the identification of the Essex Lorry victims as Vietnamese, Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said, “Vietnam strongly condemns human trafficking and considers it a serious crime subject to strict penalties. Vietnam calls upon countries in the region and around the world to step up cooperation in combating human trafficking in order to prevent the recurrence of such tragedy . . . We hope that the British side [will] soon complete the investigation to bring those responsible for this tragedy to justice.”[8]

Even in this statement, one can read the shifting of responsibility from Vietnam itself to other countries and the region. Le did not specify that Vietnam would lead the fight against trafficking regionally or even to stop trafficking in and from Vietnam. The government’s failure to take responsibility for the problem is one of the reasons that Vietnam remains a source country for human trafficking.

According to the United States 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Vietnam, “human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Vietnam and traffickers exploit victims from Vietnam abroad.” Many of these victims are forced into labor either without pay or for less pay than they were promised. In addition, women and girls are often lured with the promise of jobs and are then exploited sexually. “Within the country, traffickers exploit Vietnamese men, women, and children—including street children and children with disabilities—in forced labor, although little information is available on these cases.”[9] For Vietnam, then, the problem of human trafficking is both external and internal.

Vietnam faces difficulties in legislation, coordination, and education. While the National Assembly has made human trafficking illegal in the current Penal Code, there are loopholes that make support for 16-17 years old victims who are sexually exploited difficult. There is a lack of implementation guidance for the two articles in the Penal Code related to human trafficking. There is a lack of education to the frontline personnel who enforce the law and assist victims. And there is a lack of education regarding support services and social aids available for those who have been victimized.[10] These are just some of the problems facing enforcement of human trafficking legislation in Vietnam and stamping out the problem that faces the country.

Per Georges Blanchard, a French expert and founder of Alliance Anti-Traffic, an anti-trafficking NGO in Vietnam, “it wasn’t until 2013 that the government of Vietnam acknowledged they had a human trafficking crisis and agreed to view trafficking as a crisis.” Before that, the attitude of the government was that “if a person wanted to go, then let them go and not return home.” While the government has made advances since then, it remains a difficult road.[11]

In Vietnam, from 2012 to 2017, officials rescued and received over 7,500 trafficking victims.[12] An estimated 421,000 Vietnamese were living in what is termed “modern slavery,” by the Global Slavery Index, an international watchdog. While not all of these are victims of human trafficking, many are. Global Slavery Index ranks Vietnam 77 of 167 countries ranked.[13] For 2018, the government reported “211 trafficking cases (350 in 2017, 234 in 2016) involving 276 alleged offenders (over 500 in 2017, 308 in 2016).” The change in numbers is unlikely caused by an increase in prevention, but rather a lack of enforcement of the law, according to the US Trafficking in Persons Report.[14]

Mimi Vu, founder of Pacific Links Foundation, an NGO established to fight human trafficking in Vietnam, said, “Prevention truly is the only way to hinder this criminal crisis situation. Once money has passed to the hands of the traffickers, it’s too late. Even when we intervene with a victim at the airport of Vietnam, in their heart they already consider . . . they dream of going to a foreign country, bringing hope to their entire families.”[15] According to Blanchard, “there is nothing better than educating the community, prevention education in the community.”[16]

Numerous NGOs exist to fight human trafficking in Vietnam, but perhaps most visible is Vu’s Pacific Links Foundation. Their website states that “Pacific Links Foundation leads counter-trafficking efforts at the frontiers of Vietnam by increasing access to education, providing shelter and reintegration services, and enabling economic opportunities.” Through providing education in the communities including vocational training and uplift techniques, scholarships to at-risk girls, and providing financial and living support to victims, They have prevented thousands of women and girls from becoming victims of human trafficking and have assisted nearly a thousand victims to reintegrate after trafficking. Pacific Links Foundation is pushing against the human trafficking crisis in Vietnam, at least for women and girls.

Unfortunately, there seems little aid outside of a government tip line and an academic task force for men who are forced into labor slavery either within Vietnam or across the border.[17] While there is hope for some, many victims remain unassisted, and while the international community fights to stop the crisis of human trafficking, Vietnam remains relatively unmoved. There needs to be a unified effort between the ministries responsible to educate not only the enforcement personnel but the social workers who assist victims after the fact. Civil society needs to contribute to education for communities in high-risk areas and to high-risk groups. If Vietnam is to improve its dismal ranking on the global slavery index and to prevent human trafficking, it must take responsibility for its own.

Perhaps, then, the victims of the Essex Lorry might become a lone blip on the radar of human trafficking in Vietnam, and the likes of 26 years old Pham Thi Tra My and the other 38 victims will be remembered as a cautionary tale not to be repeated. Through prevention, education, and coordination of efforts the government of Vietnam and civil society can bring about a major, and necessary, reduction in human trafficking.


[1] “Essex lorry deaths: 39 bodies found in refrigerated trailer.” BBC Reel. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-50150070 (accessed 22 November 2019).

[2] “Essex lorry deaths: Police Name 39 Vietnamese Victims.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-50350481 (Accessed 22 November 2019).

[3] Read, Carly. “Essex lorry latest: Vietnam PM orders human trafficking investigation after 39 found dead.” Express. https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1196042/essex-lorry-latest-vietnam-police-deaths-vietnamese-citizens-human-trafficking (Accessed 22 November 2019).

[4] “Human Trafficking.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html#What_is_Human_Trafficking (Accessed 25 November 2019).

[5] “Chống buôn người: ‘Không có gì tốt hơn giáo dục’ ở VN.” BBC News. November 2, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam-50266047 (Accessed 25 November 2019).

[6] Chu, Long Mong, “Tại sao Việt Nam chưa khởi tố điều tra vụ án buôn người?” Tieng Dan. https://baotiengdan.com/2019/10/27/tai-sao-viet-nam-chua-khoi-to-dieu-tra-vu-an-buon-nguoi/ (Accessed 22 November 2019).

[7] “Human trafficking on the rise in Vietnam.” Vietnamnet.vn. https://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/society/189658/human-trafficking-on-the-rise-in-vietnam.html (accessed 22 November 2019).

[8] Badshah, Nadeem and agency. “Essex lorry deaths: Vietnam ‘strongly condemns’ trafficking.” The Guardian. November 2, 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/02/vietnam-government-strongly-condemns-human-trafficking (Accessed 25 November 2019).

[9] US 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Vietnam. U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Vietnam. https://vn.usembassy.gov/2019-trafficking-persons-report/ (Accessed 25 November 2019).

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Chống buôn người.” BBC News.

[12] Vu, Phuong. “Workshop reviews assistance for returnee victims of trafficking.” Vietnam+. September 11, 2018. https://en.vietnamplus.vn/workshop-reviews-assistance-for-returnee-victims-of-trafficking/138095.vnp (Accessed 25 November 2019).

[13] Country Index: Vietnam. Global Slavery Index. https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/viet-nam/ (Accessed 25 November 2019).

[14] US 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report: Vietnam.

[15] “Chống buôn người phải chặn trước khi nạn nhân rời Việt Nam.” VOA Vietnamese. https://www.voatiengviet.com/a/chong-buon-nguoi-phai-chan-truoc-khi-nan-nhan-roi-viet-nam/4079368.html (Accessed 25 November 2019).

[16] “Chống buôn người.” BBC News.

[17] Vietnam Country Resources. End Slavery Now. http://www.endslaverynow.org/connect?country=3401#filter (Accessed 25 November 2019).

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