Thinh uses his drawings of the boat where he was held captive to help keep other children safe.
My son Gavin is on the cusp of puberty, but still often reaches for my hand. I love that he feels safe enough to do this. He’s a caring, trusting soul.
Living in downtown Toronto, we’ve done some solid street-proofing with Gavin. His natural inclination would be to hop into a car to show a lost stranger the way. We’ve worked on scenarios to keep him safe – both on the streets and online. And for the most part, we sleep well at night.
But in many places around the world, parents can’t rest as easily. An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked every year, to be brutally exploited for sex or labour.
In this week’s installment of our five-week series, Five Lives I Can’t Imagine for My Son, here are the stories of two children whose homes are in different countries. But both live side-by-side with the phantom of human trafficking.
Innocence for sale
Just like many Canadian kids, Thinh is crazy for video games. But in Vietnam, many families are too poor to buy home systems. Teenagers like Thinh must pump coins into machines at the local arcade. When the money runs out, it’s game over.
Canadian kids who get hooked on gaming can fall behind in school or lose touch with reality. The same happened to Thinh, but for completely different reasons. Thinh’s innocent passion led him to a place of exploitation and fear, forced to work on a fishing boat off the coast of Vietnam.
“I used to spend my breakfast money at the computer game stores in town,” Thinh says. Sounds just like something my boys have done. But from here, Thinh’s story takes a different turn.
One weekend, a young man noticed Thinh watching other kids pay for games. Thinh clearly had no money left. The man offered Thinh some work delivering fish. It would be enough for Thinh to play all day, he promised, and buy a trendy new outfit.
“I couldn’t turn down such an offer,” says Thinh. “So, I followed the man. We took a bus to his workplace, two hours away.”
They stopped near a beach with many fishing boats. Thinh could see the sea, but the man had disappeared. Right on cue, a second man approached, offering Thinh a chance to earn money for the long bus ride home. All he had to do was go fishing that night.
In the deep end
Thinh was sold to a group of fishermen and forced to work grueling days and nights on the open seas for the next four months. One day, he caught a lucky break. Helping haul a particularly large catch onto the beach, he borrowed a stranger’s cell phone to call home. His dad showed up with the police.
Thinh will never be paid for what likely added up to more than a thousand hours of hard labour. He will never receive counselling for his four months in captivity. And we will never know the full extent of what he experienced on that ship, with no way to cry for help. The toll has been taken.
Thinh’s story may have ended differently if he’d had some clear teaching on how many traffickers operate. This next story shows how that can happen.
I met Srey in a marketplace in Thailand, where she lived with her aunt in a concrete box. I can’t tell you her real name, as Srey was an illegal immigrant in Thailand. She had no real identity there, no protection from police.
Like other poor children in the area, Srey was a target for traffickers who swarm around the border between Thailand and Cambodia. They pick off the most vulnerable, including hungry kids desperate for kindness – or the lure of shiny objects.
It was a stiff shot of reality to experience World Vision’s work in that community to protect children from the traffickers who would steal their innocence. Since many are illegal migrants, they can’t count on the police to protect them. They need to look out for themselves.
I will never forget the series of poster boards that World Vision teams use to equip children to stay safe from the unthinkable. They were so tough to look at. But the alternative is even more devastating.
I often think back to that afternoon I got to spend with Srey on that World Vision trip. I recall how shy she was at first, afraid to look up at me. But as we walked to her house at the end of the day, I felt her hand in mine. Just like my son Gavin, she was a gentle, caring soul, eager to show a stranger the way home.
I pray that her innocence – the birthright of every child – doesn’t end in tragedy. I had recently seen girls lined up on the streets of the Cambodian capital, supervised by a woman put in charge of their sale.
They were awaiting customers for the evening.
Speaking up for those who aren’t heard
World Vision works in communities around the world, teaching about child rights. We galvanize families to protect children through neighbourhood networks and children’s clubs, giving kids safe places to play, learn, make friends and become leaders.
These puppets are used to help educate how traffickers approach children, offering a cell phone if the child goes with them.
We also advocate for global change here at home by campaigning with the Canadian government. We’re urging our leaders to address child labour and trafficking by holding Canadian companies accountable for how their products are made.
When adults are paid fair wages, children are much more likely to be provided for at home and continue to attend school. In turn, they’re not as vulnerable when traffickers offer what seem like better options.
Sign the petition asking Canada’s leaders to require that companies report publicly on how they are addressing child labour in their global supply chains.