Vietnam's disappearing girls

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Thousands of young women have been duped into sex slavery
  An undated photo shows a woman who had been trafficked to China at a repatriation ceremony held at the international border in Lao Cai Province

Hang Thi Xay, a 57-year-old retired teacher, still vividly remembers the night she lost her daughter three years ago.

C.T.D., then 15, went missing from their home near Sa Pa the night before Valentine's Day. She was never seen again.

"It is still very clear in my mind. Our family gathered to eat and drink.

"When I woke up the following morning, she was not home any more."

She left no sign and did not tell anyone she was going to leave home. D. had never left home for more than two hours, and the furthest she had ever gone was to Sa Pa.

For the next three months Xay left no stone unturned in looking for her daughter. Whenever someone told her about possibly spotting D, she would rush to the place. But she never found her daughter.

A few months later, on May 9, Xay's daughter-in-law also disappeared, and in the same way D. had.

"I am devastated, sometimes I have to get drunk to forget the pain.

"Our family reported the cases to the police, but they say they are still investigating."

In Suoi Thau Village, Xay is not the only mother to lose her daughter under mysterious circumstances.

And in Lao Cai Province, some 3,000 women, mostly ethnic minorities living in mountainous areas, have been reported missing since 2009.

Trapping the gullible

Major Nguyen Huu Hai, deputy chief of the Lao Cai Border Station, said women are duped by human traffickers who pretend to make friends and then ask for their phone numbers.

When the young, innocent women fall into their traps, they ask them to go with them, to Sa Pa or the border. They are then taken to China and sold to brothels.

Last month Chao Lo M., a 17-year-old ethnic Dao woman, was trafficked to China in this manner.

"One afternoon I heard her speaking on the phone with her friend, and then she asked for my permission to go to her friend's house," Phan Mui Phay, the mother, said.

M. also asked Ly Ta M., a 17-year-old neighbor, to accompany her. The pair did not return.

Phay checked her daughter's mobile phone, which she had forgotten at home, and found she had been speaking to someone in China.

She realized the two girls had possibly been sold to China and reported to the police. Luckily, a month later the girls were rescued in an operation by the Chinese police and sent back home.

But, shockingly, there are cases in which women who had been cheated and trafficked to China themselves cheated other women after being rescued. They became part of the illegal human trafficking rings, making others suffer the same horrific fate they themselves did.

Ly May P., 18, of Ban Ho Commune in Sa Pa District was trafficked to China last year. After seven months she returned home along with a Chinese couple. She and the couple managed to persuade two 15-year-old girls in the village to go to China, saying they could earn a lot of money planting bananas there.

But when they took the girls to the border, the girls realized they had been cheated and fled. They were rescued by the Chinese police.

Human traffickers target girls not just in the northern mountain provinces but also in other parts of the country.

N.P.H., 18, of Hai Phong City, one of the few lucky women to escape, said she agreed to go with her friend to China after a quarrel with her husband's family. She thought she would work as a saleswoman until she saw her friend get money from a woman who turned out to be a procurer.

"At first she tried to persuade me to work as a prostitute. When I refused, she told her henchmen to brutally beat me.

"After being tortured for three days I had to accept."

H. said once a woman is sold to a brothel, she has only two options: work as a prostitute or die.

Not many victims are lucky enough to escape from brothels or be rescued by the police. According to the Lao Cai Department for Prevention of Social Ills, only around 16 percent of trafficked victims are rescued and officially repatriated.

Trauma after rescue

Since 2009 around 400 women have returned home to the province after being rescued by the Chinese police or escaping by themselves.

Nguyen Tuong Long, the department head, said many of the women suffer from enormous psychological trauma.

H. sometimes loses her mind and tries to kill people who remind her of the procurer of the brothel she had been in.

"I once tried to strangle a roommate [in a healthcare center] to death," she said tearfully.

"I came to my senses when she screamed out loud."

Another time she attempted to jump off the second floor of a building, but was luckily stopped by her roommate.

According to an official at the Lao Cai Social Sponsoring Center, a woman named M.T.V. from Nam Dinh Province has developed signs of mental illness. She often takes her clothes off and wanders around, and only puts them on when she sees people in police or border guard uniforms.

N.T.T.A. of Dak Lak Province was forced to use drugs and had part of a finger cut off in a Chinese brothel. After being rescued, she was brought to the center. She acts normally until she goes cold turkey. Then she completely loses it, insulting employees, sometimes even spitting in their faces.

According to Long, all the women rescued from brothels have sexually transmitted diseases, some even HIV. Some were pregnant and others brought babies with them.

Hard to stop

Giang A Sang, chairman of Sa Pa Commune in Sa Pa District, said there is no fool-proof solution to human trafficking.

"We regularly issue warnings about human trafficking gangs to people, but the number of missing women has not decreased," he said.

Giang A Toa, the commune police chief, said human traffickers are using more cunning tricks to lure gullible girls.

"They [girls] are persuaded they could find rich men or highly-paid jobs and have a happy life in China without having to work hard."

In March and April police arrested two men who had been hanging around local villages during weekends to lure girls to the market with them, and then persuading them to go to China, he said.

Giang A Sanh, chief of the Bac Ha District investigation police, said it was easy for human traffickers to dupe women by finding out about their families' financial condition or quarrels with husbands.

Some women did not even know where Lao Cai was, so it was easy to take them to China, he added.

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