The Missing Vietnamese Children of Europe

Date:
2016 – 2020

Location:
Europe
(esp. Britain, France, Netherlands)

Situation:
Missing

The stories are the same. . . .

Pressure to care for families at home or dreams for a better life in the west drive young Vietnamese boys or girls to European shores (Wee). They contact smugglers who arrange for them to arrive at European points of entry often after long and brutal trips under the watchful eye of threatening and abusive smugglers who abandon them at the borders. Border officials eventually pick the children up and place them with Child Welfare Services who shuffle them off into shelters or foster care.

A few days later. . . maybe even a few weeks. . . the child vanishes. Some reported as runaways. Others “disappeared, circumstances unknown”. All too many are overlooked entirely.

The reality is heartbreaking and tragic in how very unsurprising it is. Europol and those agencies willing to discuss the matter admit that the vast majority of these children are caught in illicit underground slave and human trafficking schemes. Some kidnapped directly from care services. . . . others smuggled in and then told to run away and meet up with smugglers where they will work off their travel fees. All are altogether too young to be as overlooked as they are by government officials and the public alike.

“We have intervened in support of several investigations into the trafficking of Vietnamese children sold for the purpose of forced labor, prostitution, criminality or begging. . . . The majority of the victims have been identified in France, the Netherlands and England”

— Europol (quoted in Investigate Europe)

While the problem of child trafficking is global and hardly limited by race, gender, or nationality, the problem of missing Vietnamese children is particularly large. Between 2016 – 2019, as many as 80-90%+ of all Vietnamese minors processed by key European countries (e.g. France, the Netherlands, UK) have vanished; while other countries like Germany, Poland, and Belgium have also seen dozens disappear. The vast majority of these are boys (65% in the UK), though girls also make up substantial numbers (Carson).

Common trafficking routes from Vietnam into Europe
Common trafficking routes (ECPAT)

The United Kingdom

Vietnamese citizens are consistently one of the largest sources of human trafficking reports in the UK (Einashe and Terlingen). In fact, of all child trafficking victims in the UK during 2019, 9% (18.8% of foreign immigrants) were of Vietnamese nationality bringing them in right behind British citizens in the statistics (ECPAT).

The Vietnamese trend was noted by reporters as early as 2013 (Judah), when almost 20% of the 113 missing children on the UK’s database were of Vietnamese descent despite being only 0.1% of the population. Between 2015 – 2017, there was more than 150 known victims alone, not including those who were unreported (Spillett). In some areas like Kent, the number of Vietnamese actually outnumbers that of British citizens (Einashe).

Steve Robson of Northants Live reported in 2020 that at least eight boys were still missing from Northampton (link), but of the names referenced, only one (Quang Dang Le) is actually included in the UK Missing Persons database. A Thai journalist noted one child placed into the British foster system had previously been stolen twice before and was missing the last time she went to find him (Lankasri).

The UK also has a unique source of children for smugglers to grab — private schools. In addition to the usual scene of smuggled refugee children, the UK has recently seen scandals come to light where children enter the UK on student visas, ostensibly to attend various private schools before vanishing like the rest (Herrmann). The Mill has identified at least 27 Vietnamese minors who disappeared from high schools and colleges between 2015 – 2020 including eight from Chelsea Independent College alone; while some argue the number is likely double that. The families receive money from traffickers and pay the fees for the first term (between £3,000 – £10,000). The child leaves before the second term and repays the debt + interest to the traffickers. They are entering on a Tier-4 Visa which does not require an English exam, allowing smugglers to bring in children who do not speak the language and cannot communicate properly with their teachers (Herrmann).

Regardless of whether they come on lorries and boats or through the school systems, their fates are tragic. Most upon arriving in Britain are forced into work in a variety of black market jobs including prostitution or unskilled labor in nail salons, massage parlors, restaurants, garment factories, construction, etc. (Lankasri).

Drug traffickers are naturally one of the largest consumers as Vietnamese gangs are a significant trader in the UK (Judah). In the past, illegal drugs were produced abroad and imported into the UK, but this became more risky as border controls and technology improved. Instead, they now find it safer to import forced labor and then produce the drugs domestically for export (ECPAT). Consequently, the children and young adults (often males) are imprisoned 24 hours a day in homes or buildings with reconstructed wiring and heating systems to monitor the growth and production of cannabis plants. They live in unsafe, unsanitary conditions with dangerous electricity systems, constantly darkened windows and doors to keep light and eyes away from the plants, locked into buildings they cannot escape from (Nguyen).

Care-givers are plagued by the knowledge that many end up with their traffickers (Bọn buôn người) voluntarily, driven by any number of fears for themselves and their families back home. Traffickers may offer to hide them from deportation or promise to locate them somewhere safer. Vietnamese families in the poorer provinces are desperate for financial aid, often borrowing thousands and mortgaging homes to pay smugglers and falling ever more into debt (Wee). This in turn leaves the children vulnerable to promises of better job opportunities to send money home. In these cases, the children may not actually recognize the danger they face. Others are threatened that they or their families in Vietnam will be hurt or killed if they fail to come. Many are threated with the burden of repaying the ‘fees’ for smuggling them in, sometimes as much as $40K + (Nguyen).

“One Vietnamese boy who disappeared left a note ‘apologizing profusely’ to his foster carers. . . . He felt very guilty about leaving but he said, ‘They’re threatening my sister. I have to go’. . . . That’s what modern slavery is. It’s not always chains, people locked in. It’s a mental form of control.”

Chloe Setter (Head of Advocacy, Policy, and Campaigns at ECPAT)

Many care centers seem to place the blame fully on the shoulders of the victims, arguing they cannot be expected to constantly monitor those who want to leave. However, there are also many stories of victims who escaped and sought help that were ultimately turned away or threatened by care staff and police officials (Einashe). There is some issue over the fact that western staff and officials often find it difficult to place the age of Asian victims, particularly those in the teenage years; and many adults are trained to claim to be minors to avoid legal ramifications (Carson).

Once in their prisoners’ hands, few of the slaves are ever paid for the work they do and those who are receive mere pittances (far below minimum wage). Occasionally traffickers send money home, but only to recruit new victims. The children are usually relocated away from the large cities to less populated regions like Nottingham and Northampton where the police forces are not as equipped with the tools to protect them.

Where they are actually recovered, many are arrested and processed as criminals rather than as victims (Nguyen). They then carry that conviction back with them to Vietnam after deportation, leaving them vulnerable to being caught back up in the criminal world there. Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security says that 60% of traffickers arrested there were formerly victims of trafficking (Nguyen).

“To my knowledge, there’s never been a prosecution of a Vietnamese trafficking gang for bringing children in for this purpose . . . .We’ve actually locked up, prosecuted and convicted more victims unlawfully than we have prosecuted those that are exploiting them”

Chloe Setter (Head of Advocacy, Policy, and Campaigns at ECPAT)

France

*For more information, read the report by Investigate Europe (Link).

The center for France’s disappearing victims is the Charles De Gaulle (aka Roissy) Airport in the Paris region. There, children arrive accompanied by an unrelated adult who takes the minor’s papers and promptly leaves to return to Vietnam. Without their papers, the children cannot be immediately returned to Vietnam and border patrol is forced to take them into the government’s care.

Theoretically, the children will be assigned by a judge to the care of child welfare (ASE) who processes them and them places the children in homes like foster care or shelters.

However, the system is racked with failures and weaknesses, leaving the children incredibly vulnerable. The phone numbers which used to connect to the ASE switchboard are no longer in service, leaving them often unaware of new arrivals. ASE officials complain they are only half-staffed and lack sufficient personnel to handle picking the children up and processing them directly. Instead, border patrol and police forces take the children directly to the homes or shelters, but ASE is often left uninformed of the placement. ASE has not actually picked up and placed a child directly since 2019 and appears to have insufficient information to know where all the children are or how many have even disappeared.

Of those targeted by traffickers, Vietnamese children have been acknowledged to be the most common as 100% of those processed through ASE vanished between 2018 and 2019, not including those in the years preceding.

In a pattern all to often seen in these stories, area police forces again deny any knowledge that a trafficking system (Đường dây) exists or that the issue is prolific. This despite the fact that public prosecutors have confessed that Vietnamese children are consistently disappearing within 48 hours of arrival and the fact that some traffickers were caught in the act. The exact number of missing children is uncertain, but the government says they can date the problem clear back to 2016.

France has acknowledged that its system is not set up to properly identify or help trafficking victims. Border officials are trained in anti-immigration or counterterrorism rather than anti-trafficking identification strategies. Police forces are also not trained in identifying victims which again leads to criminalization of the innocent. Some victims identified in Britain later admitted they had interacted with French police previously; however there were no translators for they to seek help from and police simply returned them to the hands of their smugglers (ECPAT).

The Netherlands

Between 2013 – 2017 in the Netherlands, Vietnam again was the second largest source of trafficked children, falling right behind Dutch citizens (National Rapporteur). Vietnamese children have historically reported that Dutch and German embassies in Vietnam are common sources for illegal visas owing to corrupt relations between smugglers and embassy officials (ECPAT).

By 2020, Dutch officials acknowledged that 97% (80+) of all Vietnamese children placed in government-run centers had vanished between 2013 – 2019 (NL Times Link 1, Link 2, Link 3). Frustratingly, the government has long been aware of the matter, though it has done little to address it (Terlingen). As early as 2015, the shelter Jade warned 100% of their Vietnamese children had vanished without a trace and one healthcare organization identified it as a ‘trend’ in the system (Terlingen). Jade pointed out clear signs of human trafficking amongst their inhabitants to police officers and noted that smugglers were actually waiting right outside the center doors to pick up the children. Another shelter expressed additional concerns between 2017 – 2018 (NL Times).

Many of these victims end up in the UK or are shuffled on to other countries as their final destination (Einashe and Terlingen)

Case studies in trafficking
Case Studies in trafficking (ECPAT)

Despite all of these reports, the Dutch government has stated that there is no evidence to suggest there was a smuggling network in existence (Terlingen). They still have no information regarding who took the children, the circumstances of their disappearance, or where they are today. A supposed ‘investigation’ in 2016 lasted a meagre two months and consisted apparently of two detectives asking for data before it was dropped. Though Parliament was told the investigation brought forth no new information, police admitted it was actually dropped because of anticipated difficulty in getting Vietnam’s help in addressing the issue (NL Times). They also acknowledged that evidence of the smuggling network did actually exist.

Officials claim there have been two newer investigations, but that nothing ‘criminal’ was found; however, this speaks more to the Government’s inability to do its job protecting children in its care than the actual issue of whether or not the trafficking exists in our opinion.

Tragically, on October of 2019, one of the children who fled a Dutch center was identified as one of 39 Vietnamese victims of an overheated truck smuggling them into Britain. The temperatures rose too high and the people on board suffocated to death leaving behind only bloody hand prints on the walls (Terlingen). The boy and another Vietnamese child had expressed a desire to remain at the center and had offered to speak with police about the smugglers who brought then into the Netherlands. It is not clear why they suddenly ran away.

“I was a child who was taken across Europe by people I was scared of. In France, the police didn’t help me and my traffickers found me again. When in the UK, I was treated like a criminal. One thing I would say to the people in Europe is, if it happened to your children, you wouldn’t ignore it. One thing I would say to the UK Government is, why are the victims the ones you treat like criminals?”

Vietnamese Child Victim

The Face of the Missing

If You or Anyone You Know Has Information About The Disappearances, Please contact Police immediately or contact ECPAT for more information on who to reach out to (info@ecpat.org.uk)

Nếu bạn hoặc ai đó bạn biết từng là nạn nhân của nạn buôn người, hãy biết rằng bạn không đơn độc. Vui lòng liên hệ với cảnh sát của bạn ngay lập tức hoặc gọi 0800 0121 700. Bạn cũng có thể liên hệ với ECPAT (info@ecpat.org.uk).

Bạn là nạn nhân nếu chủ của bạn trả cho bạn quá ít, nếu công việc là bất hợp pháp, hoặc nếu bạn bị đe dọa tại nơi làm việc. Bạn cần yêu cầu giúp đỡ.

Cảnh sát ở châu Âu được cho là an toàn. Họ không nên làm tổn thương bạn hoặc đe dọa bạn; cố gắng tin tưởng họ. Nếu bạn bị thương bởi cảnh sát, nếu bạn đang bị đe dọa bởi một quan chức chính phủ, hoặc nếu bạn bị phớt lờ, vui lòng liên hệ với Tổ chức Ân xá Quốc tế. Email: contactus@amnesty.org.

Nếu bạn dưới 18 tuổi, bạn có thể là trẻ vị thành niên theo luật pháp và cần được bảo vệ đặc biệt.

Làm ơn giúp tôi.“Please help me”
Tôi sợ hãi, và tôi cần giúp đỡ.“I’m scared, and I need help”
Tôi đến từ Việt Nam“I come from Vietnam”
Tôi cần một phiên dịch viên tiếng Việt“I need a Vietnamese translator”
Tôi __ tuổi“I am ____ years old”
Tên tôi là __“My name is ____”
Tôi là nạn nhân của nạn buôn người“I am a victim of human trafficking”
Tôi buộc phải làm việc ở đây, và tôi cần giúp đỡ“I’m forced to work here, and I need help”
Có người đang đe dọa tôi“Someone is threatening me.”
Ai đó đang đe dọa gia đình tôi“Someone is threatening my family.”
Có người làm tổn thương tôi.“Someone hurt me.”
Tôi cần một luật sư“I need a lawyer”
  • Robson, S. (2020) ‘The Northamptonshire residents who vanished without trace’, Northants Live, 27 June. Link
  • Fathima (2017) ‘Child Slavery Kidnappings in Britain’, Lankasri, 16 December. Link
  • Stickings, T. (2018) ‘More than 10,000 children in care went missing last year amid fears of exploitation by child grooming gangs’, Daily Mail, 21 April. Link
  • NL Times (2020) ‘Vietnamese kids missing from Dutch shelters victims of human trafficking: Rapporteur’, 26 March. Link
  • NL Times (2019) ‘Dutch gov’t must do more to protect disappearing child asylum seekers’, 1 April. Link
  • NL Times (2019) ‘Child asylum seekers increasingly disappearing from Dutch shelters’, 15 January. Link
  • NL Times (2020) ‘Dutch gov’t knew about Vietnamese children disappearing from asylum centers for years’, 9 March. Link
  • Miñano, L. (2020) ‘Missing in France: The plight of Vietnamese children who are trafficked into Europe’, Investigate Europe, 29 July. Link
  • Lost in Europe (n.d.) ‘Crossborder investigative journalism’, VersPers. Link
  • Einashe, I. and Terlingen, S. (2019) ‘Revealed: Vietnamese children vanish from Dutch shelters to be trafficked into Britain’, The Guardian, 30 March. Link
  • ECPAT UK (2020) ‘Every Child Protected Against Trafficking’, October. Link
  • ECPAT UK (n.d.) ‘ECPAT UK discusses plight of trafficked Vietnamese children in UK cannabis cultivation’. Link
  • ECPAT UK (2020) ‘Precarious Journeys: Mapping vulnerabilities of victims of trafficking from Vietnam to Europe. Link
  • Nguyen, K. (2015) ‘Abused, imprisoned Vietnamese slave away in UK’s cannabis farms’, Reuters, 25 February. Link (Wayback Archive)
  • National Rapporteur Mensenhandel en Seksueel Geweldtegen Kinderen (2018) ‘Slachtoffermonitor mensenhandel 2013 – 2017’. Link. (Wayback Archive)
  • Argos (2019) ‘Dozens of Vietnamese children disappeared from shelter’, 30 March. Link.
  • Einashe, I. (2018) ‘Hundreds of trafficked children ‘lost’ by local authorities’, The Guardian, 15 December. Link
  • Wee, S. (2019) ‘Britain Hasn’t Named 39 Dead in a Truck. But in Vietnam, They Know.’, The New York Times, 25 November. Link.
  • Terlingen, S. (2020) ‘Vietnamese children dissapeared from protected shelters. And our government knew’, VPRO, 11 March. Link
  • Spillett, R. (2017) ‘Dozens of Vietnamese children who were rescued from traffickers have vanished from council care amid fears they are back in the hands of slave gangs’, Daily Mail, 13 October. Link.
  • Taylor, C. (2017) ‘Rochdale council failings see Vietnamese children in care disappear, with fears they have fallen into the hands of slave masters’, The Sun, 13 October. Link
  • Carson, G. (2017) ‘Vietnamese children “at risk of being trafficked from care”, Community Care, 14 September. Link
  • Briggs, B. (2019) ‘Trafficked children ‘missing’ from care by Scots councils’, The Ferret, 14 January. Link.
  • Judah, S. (2013) ‘Why are so many of the UK’s missing teenagers Vietnamese?’, BBC, 17 June. Link.
  • Herrmann, J. (2019) ‘Gangs use top schools to traffic Asian girls’, The Times, 4 November. Link.
  • Herrmann, J. (2020) ‘Disappearing students, missed clues and a secret trafficking scandal that rocked England’s private schools’, The Mill, 27 June. Link.
  • Winsor, M. and Chambers, A. (2019) ‘Bodies of victims found in refrigerated truck in UK arrive in Vietnam’, ABC News, 28 November. Link
  • Missing People and ECPAT (2018) ‘Still in Harms Way’. Link

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