Text by Hieu Tran
Photos by Mark Chew
Ask any expat living in Hanoi and they would probably say that their favourite place in the city is the Sword Lake, near the Old Quarters, a beautiful little gem where nature and culture meet. For Michael Brosowski, the Australian co-founder of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, an ugly truth lurks behind the beauty of this iconic venue ‒ glorious as it seems, the place is also the site of horrendous abuses that happen to street children every night.
“For the last three years, we have been witnessing young boys being preyed upon and harassed by male paedophiles, and we are trying our best to do something about it,” the compassionate man shares.
Children who live on the streets are usually those who have been abandoned or chased away by abusive parents, neglect, or families that are too poor to send them to school or even provide for their daily needs. Forced to fend for themselves early in life, these children take to the streets. Occasionally, victims come from perfectly normal family backgrounds, but they happen to run away from home nonetheless. A child who was found wandering the streets by Blue Dragon had left home only because he was scolded in school and was afraid that his parents would punish him.
Street children used to be seen everywhere, shining shoes or selling lottery tickets, and child labourers in diners and cafes used to be more common. As Hanoi welcomes more and more tourists, the sight of street children in central areas such as the Sword Lake is deemed to be distasteful, and so the children have become more “invisible”, trying to survive on the streets without getting caught.
They might be found sleeping on trees, under bridges, or living with other street kids in poor and unsanitary conditions. They may spend their days in Internet cafes, where owners illegally sell them drugs to make them come back for more. They might also be trafficked into sweatshops in Ho Chi Minh City or brothels in China.
Hanoi’s established vocational training schools for youth at risk, such as Hoa Sua School and KOTO Foundation, only admit students aged 18 years and above. Blue Dragon is the only known organisation in Hanoi dedicated to rescuing and helping street children reunite with families and go back to school.
There are many reasons why the issue of child abuse persists in Vietnam.
First, the laws regarding sexual harassment of children do not offer comprehensive protection, especially towards boys. If someone is alleged to have committed sexual offence against a minor, he cannot be charged for the sexual offence if the child victim was a boy.
It seems that government officials may not be fully aware of the situation on ground, and enforcement agencies can only do so much in light of existing laws.
The only way these young boys can be saved is if a Blue Dragon staff gets to them before the paedophiles do.
Second, according to stories told by rescued boys, perpetrators are malicious and elusive.
There is the case of a man who would disguise himself as a monk and roam the streets of Northern provinces in search of boys who would follow him in hope of being fed and taken care of. Needless to say, the boys would end up as his sex slaves. When he got bored of them, he would dump them back on the streets. At times, he would even force his victims to recruit other victims.
“He is an evil, evil man,” said Michael in disgust, angered by the thought of physical and psychological harm being brought upon innocent children.
Boys and girls alike may also face a different but equally dire fate of being vulnerable to human trafficking. Every so often, girls and women would be trafficked into China and sold as brides or prostitutes against their will. The girls and women who have been rescued by Blue Dragon with the help of Vietnamese and Chinese authorities were lucky enough to have had access to a phone. Meanwhile, boys are likely to be trafficked into garment factories around Ho Chi Minh City or to vegetable farms in central provinces and forced to work for no pay.
In spite of the risks that come with living on the streets and despite the best effort of Blue Dragon, some street children still choose not to be rescued. This happens when they have been living in the streets for too long and have become entrenched in the lifestyle of drug addiction or child prostitution.
“Every child who has agreed to be helped by us is amazing,” the co-founder of Blue Dragon says.
Blue Dragon is trying to address the issue through street intervention which covers child rescue, customised psychological and legal support, and education, as well as advocacy work which involves raising awareness and working with officials to enhance the legal framework.
With a shelter capacity of 20, a drop-in centre in Hanoi as well as an additional operating centre in Hue, Blue Dragon currently provides assistance for 1500 Vietnamese children across the country. Besides street kids, more than 400 victims of human trafficking have been rescued through the cooperation between Blue Dragon and the police.
To read more about Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, please visit bluedragon.org or Michael’s blog at vietnamstreets.blogspot.com.
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