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Michael Brosowski is the Founder of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation (BDCF), an Australian charity working in Vietnam with children in crisis.
Michael is an Australian teacher and activist who has been living in Vietnam for 15 years. From very humble beginnings in 2003, BDCF has grown to an organisation of 85 dedicated staff supporting over 1,500 of the most vulnerable children throughout Vietnam every year. He was chosen as one of CNN Heroes in 2011 and was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2012 in recognition for his work.
Michael giving the keynote Bold Leadership in the 21st Century, 15 May 2017— Day 1 of the Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue 2017.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in Botany, Sydney, NSW, Australia. When I was about 12, my family bought a vacant block of land 600 km North West of Sydney. We lived a pretty rough life there and didn’t even have electricity for some years. I later moved back to Sydney to study and work. I ended up teaching in Fairfield West where I had a lot of Vietnamese students of immigrant backgrounds. I became interested in Vietnam and went there on my first overseas trip. I loved it so much that I moved there a few years later and have been there for 15 years.
What do you like about Vietnam?
It’s a really dynamic and interesting country — not always an easy place to live and work but it’s rewarding nevertheless. I love that things are constantly moving and changing.
I now live in Hanoi but initially I lived in Ho Chi Minh City and taught at the University of Economics. My university then transferred me to Hanoi where Blue Dragon started. I still love the South and go there whenever I have a holiday. I love the Delta, I love the city, I love Saigon. There’s still something about it that draws me.
Could you share some challenges you’ve faced since moving to and working in Vietnam?
I initially came to Vietnam hoping to have an ‘easy life’, with no intention of starting an organisation. Then I met homeless kids in Hanoi. The challenge for me initially was finding somebody to report the problem to. In Vietnam, there often isn’t a specific person or organisation that you can hand the responsibility to like in Australia. You have to take responsibility yourself.
As a foreigner not knowing how things worked, I saw these homeless kids and knew I couldn’t just walk past this. I wanted to do something. It was the same with human trafficking. We didn’t know who could help to stop it, so we did it ourselves. And this has been many times over — working out how to get something done, what’s the right approach to make a lasting change in an environment where information isn’t clear or complete. This has been the biggest and ongoing challenge so far.
How did you come across trafficking in the first place?
The very first time was in 2005, when I saw a 13-year-old boy named Ngoc selling flowers in Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers’ area of Saigon. I saw that every time he sold a flower, he would give the money to a few women who were watching him. When I spoke to him, I noticed his strange accent and found out he was from Hue. It was clear that he was in distress and under the control of these women, so I helped him escape and return home. We later discovered that trafficking was a problem in the whole area of Hue, not just for one family. So that was how we started.
A couple years later, one of our girls from our Hanoi street kids program disappeared. She made contact with us six months later by calling for help from China. We went there, found her and helped her escape. That was how we started working on cross-border trafficking. Each time it wasn’t by design, it was that we saw a problem and said ‘what can we do about it?’.
Blue Dragon has been around for more than 10 years now, and it has made a big impact. Have you seen a decline in trafficking as a result or is it still a problem today?
We’ve seen a decline in certain types of trafficking. For example, we first saw children from Hue being trafficked to sell flowers in Ho Chi Minh City, this doesn’t happen anymore. We got rid of this type of trafficking quite quickly. We then discovered that children from Hue and Dien Bien were being trafficked to work in garment factories and sweat shops in Ho Chi Minh City. In the last two years, we’ve rescued six children each year from these sweat shops, previously we were doing rescue operations every month. This kind of trafficking still exists but is significantly smaller than before and is also on its way out.
On the issue of trafficking of Vietnamese people to China, it’s hard to say based on clear evidence whether it’s increasing or decreasing. What we are seeing is incredibly more calls for help but we don’t know whether this means the problem is getting worse or that more people are asking for help.
How do traffickers manage to traffic people to other countries?
It’s all based on deception. Traffickers can be men or women, young or old. One time we met a single mother from Saigon with a child in hospital with leukemia. The trafficker met her there, formed a friendship with her, offered to help pay her bills and convinced her to go to China. The woman thought she would go for a couple of days to help on a job and come back, but instead she was sold.
There are times when traffickers pose as boyfriends or as business partners. They’ll establish the relationship over weeks or even months. Then one day they’ll ask, “Why don’t we go on a holiday somewhere together?” or “I’ve just gotta go up to the border and need some help, I can pay you a little bit of money”. So it looks like the victim is going willingly but they’re not. They’re going without knowing what’s going to happen to them.
Is it dangerous rescuing these people?
It can be. We do try to work as much as possible with the authorities, both Chinese and Vietnamese. It’s a lot safer when we can work with the police. When we do the rescue ourselves we have to find a way to keep it safe. We do not try to be heroes. Our goal is to get people home safe and alive. That means not confronting traffickers, not picking fights but running. We avoid problems and so far we’ve been safe. There have been incidents but we’ve always achieved what we set out to do.
How many people has Blue Dragon rescued?
678 people so far and this number is constantly going up.
How do you think we can solve this?
There isn’t a simple answer. There’s not one single thing that you can do. We possibly have to accept that it’ll never be completely stopped. However we can reduce it by building the capabilities of the police and the courts to fight and prosecute traffickers. We have to stay forever vigilant to make sure that we can stay on top of this.
There are so many people being trafficked in Vietnam that we don’t really know how many. We need to turn this around. We need to help young people understand how to stay safe and what to do if something goes wrong. Strong and constant economic development helps as well by providing jobs so people don’t have to go on risky trips to China. I think we have to do a lot of different things in order to end human trafficking.
Do you work closely with the Vietnamese government and local communities and how supportive have they been so far?
When we started out, we didn’t really do that and didn’t know how. Over time, we realise that to succeed in this kind of work we have to be engaging with the police, the government and local communities. They’ve been very supportive.
Sometimes when we first go into a community, people might think we’re crazy. They might say their daughter has gone away for a year and they haven’t heard from her, but she wasn’t trafficked because she knew the person she was going with. After, when we explain what actually happened, they ask us for help in bringing their daughter home.
A lot of people are aware of trafficking, but they don’t think it will happen to them. They might think trafficking is something that happens to stupid or bad people. We’ve rescued professional, middle-aged, people from trafficking in China. We’ve rescued university students and people related to government officials. This is a problem that can happen to anyone.
What have you seen so far in terms of social changes in Vietnam?
The economy has developed rapidly. Logically the economy can’t change as society stays the same. Values change, people’s daily concerns change. The inequality gap has also widened.
A lot of people have benefitted from this economic development but in some ways quality of life might be on the decline with pollution, noise and long hours at work. Other people are left behind, especially those in mountainous or remote areas. They are looking at what’s happening in the cities and can feel left out. That can lead to them taking risks when traffickers come to their village and offer them jobs, or they might migrate to the city with no resources and end up being homeless.
A lot of people who are now wealthy were poor themselves not long ago. There’s a social phenomenon where people who’ve escaped poverty may not want to help those who are still behind. They may think that they’ve made it and expect others to do the same on their own. I think what we need to see in Vietnam is a more generous attitude of wanting to help people who are struggling, who aren’t benefitting from the social and economic development that’s taking place.
Do you think these social changes affect young people more than anyone else?
Very much, young people don’t always understand the context and history of the changes happening. One of the vulnerabilities that leads to human trafficking is poor decision making. Not thinking things through, not understanding risks. Young people are not naturally good at calculating risks. That’s something you learn over the years. So unfortunately, that desire to change, grow and develop, which in one way is a real rich benefit to the Vietnamese society, can mean doing things too quickly or being impulsive. That could lead young people to dangerous situations.
What kind of change would you like to see in Vietnam and Australia in the next ten years?
I’d like to see more openness to understanding each other and caring for one another. I think in Australia, sometimes we’re too caught up in our own problems and don’t realise how important it is to look after our neighbours. I think Australia has had amazing development over the last 20 years or so. There are social problems such as poverty in Australia but I think Australia has the resources to reach out and care for its neighbours, and Vietnam is one of them.
Within Vietnam, I’d like to see people looking out more for one another and the country developing in a way that’s more inclusive for everyone. Whether they’re a minority person living up in the mountains or somebody living in the capital city, everyone should have equal access to opportunities to develop. People can try to get ahead by stepping all over everyone or by bringing everyone up with them — and we all benefit when we bring others along with us.
What do you think people can do to support Blue Dragon and other similar initiatives?
Our biggest need to keep the organisation going is funding so we need to form partnerships with people and organisations that can fund this work.
Apart from that, it’s important that Vietnamese and Australians remain aware and vigilant of the problem. Increasingly, there is something that you can do daily through your own shopping and spending habits. There’s a lot of information online to educate you about which companies are careful to avoid slavery and child labour in their supply chains. If you come across a company that doesn’t have a good track record, stay away from them and send them a message on their Facebook page or a tweet telling them why. That’s a small daily action that anyone can do to help in fighting against trafficking. We need millions of voices saying that this is unacceptable so that governments and companies will come together and stamp it out.
What’s next for you and Blue Dragon?
Over the last year, we’ve been reviewing ourselves and working out our core mission. We come back to this idea that Blue Dragon is here to care for people while also trying to create change that will last forever. That means making better systems, better laws and so on.
The next 10 years will mean a lot more work in rescue and aftercare. I would say we’ll also be looking at new forms of trafficking that are emerging, such as trafficking into the farming sector. Trafficking anywhere is constantly evolving so no one can tell what it’s going to look like in two years’ time. We have to continue to evolve with that, so Blue Dragon needs to remain agile and able to evolve quickly while also growing.
To do that we’ve got to be focused on our mission and make sure we don’t fall into the trap of becoming a bureaucracy. That can happen as NGOs grow. It’s too easy to start out small but then eventually you can’t get decisions made or get anything done. So we’ve been consciously looking at how we can remain agile and restructuring to ensure this.
Please consider donating to support Michael and Blue Dragon in combating human trafficking and helping Vietnamese children in crisis.
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