ECPAT UK’s Project Officer, Leah Davison, recently returned from Vietnam where ECPAT UK, Anti-Slavery International and Pacific Links Foundation launched their new short film, The Secret Gardeners. Leah reflects on the film launch and the factors driving the trafficking of Vietnamese children.

In December, my colleagues and I travelled to a middle school in Nghệ An to screen our new film, The Secret Gardeners, and raise awareness about child trafficking and the risks of undocumented migration to Europe. The short film, developed by Animage films and Oscar-nominated animator Erica Russell, was released in the UK to inform professionals about the plight of trafficked Vietnamese children who are criminalised despite being forced by gangs to cultivate cannabis. However in Vietnam, the film has a different purpose. As Vietnam is consistently a top country of origin for child trafficking victims in the UK, our objective in showing the film was to build children’s knowledge and capacity to protect themselves from trafficking.

Nghệ An is a large province in North central Vietnam, bordering Laos and comprising sandy white coasts, rural villages and a sanctuary for endangered animals. In Nghệ An, incidents of human trafficking among young people are high - a significant portion of trafficked Vietnamese children hail from there. With our Vietnamese partner Pacific Links Foundation and UK partner Anti-Slavery International, we visited a middle school in Nghi Loc District on a Saturday – a school day in Vietnam.  Arriving after a short bus journey, we found over 400 students sat impeccably in straight rows on red plastic stools, donning school uniforms. The students were middle schoolers aged 11 to 14, and they had specifically gathered for the outreach event.

Before screening the film, the event facilitator asked all of the young people to raise their hand if they had a family member who had migrated abroad to earn and send money home. 90% of the young people raised their hand. At that moment, a powerful realisation hit me - that migration is a normative reality and perhaps even an expectation in this area of Vietnam. Many young people from Vietnam migrate with the hope of earning money by working in nail bars in the UK. However as highlighted in the film, the reality that awaits many is exploitation – whether that is in salons or on cannabis farms. For some, the result is even prison. Additionally, there are serious risks of exploitation along the often protracted journey throughout Europe and to the UK.

By visiting Nghệ An and showing this film, we were not attempting to tell young people what to do. Instead, we wanted to increase their knowledge on the risks of undocumented migration and shed light on what it means to be trafficked and exploited. Taking a moment to address the age old confusion about what constitutes smuggling and what constitutes trafficking, we wanted to highlight to these at-risk young people the fact that somewhere along the way, smuggling - where you pay a person to transport you to another country illegally - can easily turn into trafficking, and the young person may find themselves in a situation of exploitation they had not expected.

After the film was shown, the young people had the chance to put their knowledge to the test. They played games where they were asked questions about what they had learned from the film. The young people seemed to thoroughly enjoy the unusual presence of foreigners at their school - the more outgoing of the group relentlessly requested ‘selfies’ on their phones. The prevalence of this type of technology in the school indicates an elevated risk of trafficking, as it is commonly acknowledged that the spread of smartphones has made it easier for traffickers to groom their victims via social media apps.

Desires and attitudes surrounding migration are not something that can be, nor necessarily should be, changed. Seemingly, many young people living in the province of Nghệ An believe that going to the UK will provide an escape from a stagnant or unsatisfactory economic situation. We were not there to tell these young people not to migrate; rather we were there to understand the situation in this region and to share our understanding of the risks of trafficking and exploitation, using the film as a medium for the message. As the young people sat in the schoolyard on their bright red stools watching the film, there were new realisations for some about the reality of what an undocumented migration route through Europe may entail. For others, the event served a powerful reminder of the risks. We left the school having helped to raise awareness about the risk of trafficking, and from that perspective, the event was successful. 

Read more about the End-to-End Vulnerability Mapping project