The COVID-19 pandemic is putting Vietnamese girls and women at even greater risk of exploitation, abuse and human trafficking. Even if Vietnam continues with its impressive record of controlling the virus, the indirect effects of the pandemic are set to have disastrous impacts, especially on the most vulnerable members of Vietnamese society – many of them female.

Vietnam has been widely praised for its handling of COVID-19. The country initially seemed to have eliminated the virus following months-long lockdowns starting in February, an impressive achievement for a low-income country that shares a 1450km land border with China. However, its 99-day virus-free run came to an end on July 25 when a case was identified in the resort city of Da Nang.

This new outbreak raised concerns around how the government should control the virus, with worries that Vietnam could not withstand another lockdown, with businesses already facing huge losses and the government running out of money. The country’s economy is based on exports, and it suffered a fall in GDP of 0.36% in the second quarter of this year, a drop of 3.8%.

Vietnam responded with aggressive contact tracing, proactive case management and quarantining thousands of people, and it seems as if this swift response has been effective in bringing the virus under control once more. On September 22, the Ministry of Health reported the third day in a row of no new COVID-19 cases, with 19 straight days free from community transition.  

However, these events showed just how easily outbreaks can occur, as well as how rapidly they can spread, with several hundred people infected and 24 deaths in the second outbreak. Vietnam’s poorest communities are extremely vulnerable not only to the COVID-19 virus itself, but even more so to the indirect effects of the pandemic.

Voice on the Ground: Linh

For people like Linh Ta My, the first COVID-19 outbreak in Vietnam, which occurred from February to April this year, presented a range of challenges. She was forced to work from home for over a month as Ho Chi Minh City, along with other parts of the country, was put under lockdown.

Linh was not able to return to her hometown in the Mekong Delta for months. She was forced to stay in HCMC without any relatives nearby, a scary prospect as the pandemic unfolded in Vietnam’s largest city, a metropolis of nearly 9 million people. She also struggled to work from home in a challenging work environment, trying to be productive working from a small apartment with only a single space for eating, sleeping and working. This was exacerbated by noisy neighbours and the hot south Vietnamese climate.

Linh works for Alliance Anti Trafic Vietnam (AAT), a well-recognised organisation that has combatted exploitation, abuse and human trafficking with a range of programs throughout Vietnam for nearly two decades. The organisation did its best to continue to their work while strictly complying with Government restrictions, understanding the importance of prioritising community safety. However, they found that working over Skype and email far from the best way to provide support to their beneficiaries.

Linh Ta My with one of Alliance Anti Trafic’s beneficiaries in Ho Chi Minh City.

Online meetings were less effective than their regular in-person ones as many participants struggled with unstable internet connections and noisy environments. Their community group that supports women who earn a living through prostitution could not meet with their clients for a month, instead providing support exclusively over the phone or message in order to minimise the risk of transmission. Furthermore, faced with a dramatic drop off in clients, around 70% of the women returned to their more hometowns, where living costs were much more affordable, but where they lack the support of organisations like AAT.

The organisation also had to cancel the activities of their Where Dreams Bloom program, a project that supports daughters and sisters of women involved in prostitution to go to school. All activities and home visits with the girls were cancelled, though staff kept in touch with them through phone calls and messages. Their final key program, preventative education of high school students, had to be deferred to later in the year as schools closed.

Fresh Challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected AAT’s ability to carry out their important work logistically, but financially as well. Like many anti-human trafficking organisations across the world, they are particularly struggling right now.

“The biggest challenge,” says Linh “is that we are losing funding opportunities because of COVID-19. We have seen project funding reallocated towards COVID-19 and this means we may not be able to make additional funding commitments to our projects for the rest of the year or even next year.”

Along with the financial uncertainty, Linh worries about the risk of project failures due to the pandemic. The complicated nature of the current situation is already causing project delays and activity cancellations, and this is likely to continue well into the future. It is getting harder for them to access and therefore support their beneficiaries, while restrictions on local and international travel limits their ability to extend their projects as well as seek funding.

According to AAT’s Director Georges Blanchard, “Our greatest challenge during Covid-19 is to survive to the last minute when we stop receiving funding. After that, if we can overcome these difficulties and stay alive, it will be more complicated to find sponsors because, for many donors, the priorities are changing, understandably. The other side effect is that we will have to reconstruct our work and action methodology to match the post COVID-19 context, but with less funding.”

Human Trafficking and COVID-19

Even as it is getting harder for them to do their work, organisations like AAT are needed more than ever.

Vietnam has long been one of the top source countries for female human trafficking in Asia, with the majority of women and girls being sold to Cambodia, Malaysia and China. According to a 2018 report by the Vietnamese National Committee on Crime Prevention and Control, law enforcement agencies rescued and received around 7,500 victims of trafficking in Vietnam. Of these victims, 90% were female and 80% were sexually exploited, either in the sex industry or in marriages.

However, as is the nature of human trafficking, the extent of the problem is unknown and experts believe the total number of victims is much higher.

Along with international trafficking, modern slavery is significant issue: according to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, between 2012 and 2016 around 400,000 Vietnamese people were subject to modern slavery, including labour exploitation, forced marriages and sexual servitude. These issues of exploitation and abuse are highly complex: they are linked to a variety of social and economic factors, and facilitated by a deficit in girls’ education.

Linh believes that the biggest issue facing women and girls in Vietnam is gender equality.  “Women are expected to do many things in Vietnamese society. The culture was set up in such a way that women need to be good at making money and taking care of house at the same time. This mindset runs deep in Vietnamese culture.”

If a family cannot afford to send all their children to school, girls are likely to leave school early so that their brothers can continue with their studies. This lack of education can put girls at risk of human trafficking, sexual exploitation, or both.

AAT are worried that the conditions during and after this pandemic will put them at even greater risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking, and reported that many families are already facing desperate situations. Linh says that life has become more difficult for many since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve already seen some of the parents in their Where Dreams Bloom program losing their jobs or are facing a greatly reduced income.

This increased economic pressure on families puts children, and girls in particular, at increased risk of exploitation, child labour and gender-based violence. Through the first lockdown, many girls were spending most of their time at home taking care of their younger siblings, while also trying to do online classes or homework. Not only does this put increased pressure on them to achieve results at school, but the isolation can also take a toll on their mental health.

Georges adds “Poor [Vietnamese] families today will be poorer after the pandemic. Many families will accumulate debts with local mafia that they will force to repay at any cost. It is seriously possible that more children and women will become involved in sexual exploitation and trafficking.”

He explains that in AAT’s Where Dreams Bloom program, 84.6% of the families live in a rented house or a relatives’ house, 38.5% have family members with a chronic disease who depend on the family’s income and nearly 70% of the families have had at least one family member lose their job during the lock downs. Even though AAT was able to offer some financial support to partly help these families overcome these challenges, they continue to struggle with greatly reduced income.

Georges quotes a mother in one of their programs who told him ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, this situation is larger than me’.

What Linh, Georges and the AAT team are seeing first-hand is part of a disturbing global trend. In July, UN Women released a report on Human Trafficking trends during the COVID-19 pandemic that revealed that the crisis has “created new risks and challenges to victims of trafficking and survivors of trafficking, as well as having exacerbated the vulnerabilities of at-risk groups to trafficking”.

The report, based on a large global survey, found that:

  • Online recruitment, grooming and exploitation have been used widely during the pandemic
  • The demand for Child Sexual Abuse Material has increased and with it, trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation online
  • Access to assistance and services for victims of trafficking and survivors of trafficking has decreased
  • These trends are only set to worsen during and after the pandemic.

The pandemic has made it easier to conceal the already largely invisible issue of human trafficking in many places, while at the same time exacerbating many of the “push” factors that make victims vulnerable to human trafficking.

The Real “Trickle Down Effect”

Even in a country that has been championed for its response to COVID-19, the economic pressures of the pandemic are deeply affecting vulnerable populations and worsening existing issues.

These risks are further exacerbated by the limitations on the work of anti-trafficking organisations at this time, both because of practical concerns and reduced funding. In short, even as these groups are needed more than ever, it is becoming harder for them to do their work. It is important to remember the indirect as well as the direct consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not forget that problems like exploitation, abuse and human trafficking are still going on, and worse than ever.

This is just another stark example of how connected the world is, and how events and crisis in one part of the globe can impact on the rest of the world’s population, particularly the most vulnerable, and even in countries that have done all they can to insulate themselves and protect their citizens. Wealth may not trickle down, but the world’s problems certainly do, and it is always the poorest and most disadvantaged who suffer the most.

This brings additional meaning to that quote from a mother in AAT’s programs:

‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, this situation is larger than me’.

If you’d like to read more about human trafficking, there are some excellent resources on the Polaris Project and Trafficking Matters sites. You can also support Alliance Anti Trafic Vietnam’s Where Dreams Bloom program here and their preventative education program here.

You can get help or can report suspected cases of human trafficking at the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the USA, the Red Cross in Australia, or find the list of hotlines in Europe here.

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