Vietnam's dilemma: to close or reform drug rehab centers

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The Prime Minister has ordered a crackdown on drugs and prostitution, but the UN wants the government to shut down compulsory treatment centers


  The hole gouged in a toilet wall by drug addicts at the Quang Nam Social Labor and Education Center to escape from the compulsory rehab facility on September 21. Vietnam is seeking to reform a drug rehabilitation program that has been criticized as being ineffective. Photo: CTV

Scores of drug addicts escaped from a detoxification center in central Vietnam last week at a time when the country is seeking to improve such centers amid pressure from the United Nations to close them down.

Quang Nam Province authorities sent hundreds of police officers to track down the 91 inmates who had fled from the Social Labor and Education Center in Hiep Duc District on September 21.

Inmates burrowed a hole in a toilet brick wall, and at around 1 a.m. that day 26 of them escaped through it, using blankets to scale an outer wall.

At 8:30 a.m. 22 more escaped the same way, while 43 others forced the guards to open the door before fleeing.

At least 47 of them have been brought back either by the police or family members.

Many of the addicts said they had followed others out of the place.

Vo Van Suu, chief investigator at the Hiep Duc police division, said there have been many "incidents" at the center this year, including a suicide by an addict on February 24, three days after being admitted, and fights between inmates that led to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The center's director, Nguyen Xuan Sinh, admitted that there has been only "administrative management" of the drug addicts at the center which has been ineffective in term of rehabilitation.

"Police officers should replace the guards," An Ninh Thu Do newspaper quoted Sinh as saying.

In February 164 inmates overpowered guards and escaped from a detention and rehabilitation center in the central city of Da Nang. Two years ago 578 drug addicts fled a detox center in the northern port city of Hai Phong.

The UN, in June, while commending Vietnam for passing the Law on Handling of Administrative Violations, which stopped an earlier practice of forcing sex workers into rehabilitation centers, urged policymakers to "review the detention centers for drug users from a similar perspective."

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"Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers"¦threaten the health of detainees, including through increased vulnerability to HIV and tuberculosis infections," it said in a statement.

But this caused concern among experts who did not know how drug users could be effectively rehabilitated if the centers are closed down, especially since there has been a recent rise in the number of drug addicts and crimes by them, and the failure of community-based rehab programs.

A 2004 government decree requires drug users aged 18 and above to be admitted for one to two years of compulsory rehabilitation if they continue to use drugs after being fined by local authorities or undergoing home-based rehab programs.

All homeless people caught using drugs also have to be sent to compulsory rehab centers.

Rehabilitated drug users can be monitored by local authorities for one to two years after their discharge, which is referred to as "post-detoxification management," if authorities decided that there is a high risk of recidivism.

Rehab problems

At a conference on August 13 the HCMC People's Committee, the municipal administration, said that it has spent VND1.5 trillion (US$71.9 million) over the last five years on building and improving nearly 20 drug detox centers.

In June, more than 9,000 addicts were being treated at the centers, a 10 percent increase since late last year.

A report filed at the conference said drug abuse is becoming "complicated" with an increasing number of people addicted to methamphetamine, for which Vietnam does not have a detox program.

Nguyen Van Minh, deputy director of the city social affairs department, said while it is necessary to diversify rehabilitation methods, the major one must be compulsory treatment at centers.

"[The centers] are necessary especially for those who have returned to drugs many times, committed crimes, and have no permanent residence," he said.

On July 31 Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung ordered related agencies to crack down on drugs and prostitution.

The order described drug use and crimes related to it as becoming "complicated and unpredictable" and drug smuggling, production, and use as "increasing." It added that post-detox management was not effective.

The PM has instructed the social affairs ministry to reform the drug detoxification program, especially the model at rehabilitation centers.

Vietnam has maintained that compulsory drug rehabilitation in the country is humane, effective and beneficial for drug users, their communities and society.

"Vietnam's drug rehabilitation centers comply with Vietnamese law and are in line with drug-treatment principles set by the US, the UN and the World Health Organization," The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement last year.

Increasing addicts, crimes

At another conference, this one on AIDS, drugs, and prostitution on September 7, the Ministry of Public Security reported that there were 171,400 drug addicts in the country, an increase of 7.7 percent over last year.

More than a third of them are being rehabilitated at more than 130 centers nationwide.

In the first half of this year police arrested 14,599 people involved in drug crimes, seizing 210 kilograms of heroin, 70 kg of opium, 1.5 tons of cannabis, and 500,000 methamphetamine tablets.

Deputy Minister of Public Security Pham Quy Ngo said drug criminals are becoming more organized and readier to attack the police when confronted.

George Blanchard, founder of the NGO Acting for Women in Precarious Circumstances Vietnam (AFESIP), said the government has known about the ineffectiveness of compulsory rehabilitation centers, but only privately acknowledged it recently.

It might take some time and a lot of money to make the needed changes, he said.

"The Vietnamese police say if they close the centers, what will be the solution?"

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