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Q&A: Blue Dragon Co-CEO Skye Maconachie on How the Pandemic Is Affecting Vietnam's Most Vulnerable

Urbanist Hanoi talks to Skye Maconachie, Co-CEO of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, a respected, Hanoi-based NGO known for rescuing victims of human trafficking and supporting street kids in the capital.

Maconachie explains the ways Blue Dragon is assisting street kids during the lockdown, how border closures are affecting Vietnamese victims of human trafficking stuck in China, and the emergency appeal the organization has launched to help support Vietnam's most vulnerable amid a period of global crisis.

We are living through extraordinary times…What’s the mood like at Dragon House? Are you still able to work together with the kids you support?

Due to social distancing laws, we are not working in the office together. Our staff are spread across Hanoi, either working from home, working in our shelters, or working on the street with children and families. In our shelters, we have staff providing around-the-clock care and support. For kids in their homes, our social workers are connected online to help them study, stay safe and provide counseling. We are working closely with families to get emergency support to those who need it most — many have lost their daily income and require our help or access to other support available in the community at this time.  

Skye Maconachie, Co-CEO of Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. 

Is Blue Dragon’s outreach work with street kids able to continue amid the lockdown?

Our outreach work is hugely important at this time and is continuing during this period of social isolation. We have a dedicated team who are doing outreach both day and night, as kids and families living on the street are extremely vulnerable. With the support of generous donations, we’ve been providing face masks, hand gel and food to those living on the street and are continuing to help them find safer alternatives.

We are seeing more kids stuck on the street after losing their jobs with no means of getting to their homes in the countryside, as well as new kids from rural areas who haven’t been going to school for a couple of months due to school closures. They’ve come to Hanoi in the hope of making money to help their families. Meanwhile, kids from poor provincial areas are becoming more vulnerable to being exploited and made to beg or sell things on the street, especially younger kids around the age of five.

We are starting to see kids we previously helped get off the streets in the past but are now back on the street because they have no choice — their families cannot afford to pay rent nor do they have enough food. We are trying to help these families as much as possible while coordinating with other homeless services to make sure we are reaching the most vulnerable across the city, which includes both adults and children.

One of Blue Dragon's social workers offers support to street kids in Hanoi. 

How is the crisis affecting individuals across Vietnam? Are you seeing an increase in homelessness, abuse or trafficking?

I think what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg and it will get much worse over the coming months. Many of the children and families we work with were already in poverty or in crisis, so now they are reaching a breaking point as they have no means to make a living. Many of the children have already experienced some form of abuse in their homes, the community, on the streets or when they were trafficked. People are under a lot of stress, and so if abuse already exists in a household or community, it can be amplified by this situation. This puts children at high risk, especially where there is alcoholism or drug use, or if they come from a broken family. Our staff are staying in very close contact with children who are at home and in the community to ensure their safety.

In Hanoi, many of those families work on the streets in tourist hot spots like beside Hoan Kiem Lake, so when tourism started shutting down, their ability to earn did too, and that has been the case for more than a month already. For families renting rooms in urban areas, they are already unable to cover living costs and may become stuck in the city with no means of returning to the countryside. The situation in the countryside could be worse for them than staying on the streets in Hanoi, so we are seeing more homelessness and hunger.

Many of the young people we’ve supported to find jobs across the country work in sectors that have been shut down, such as hospitality, the beauty industry, tourism or small businesses, and so all of them have been laid off or are unable to work due to the crisis. This means they are receiving no income, which not only affects them individually, but also their families who they are supporting.

Students in Dien Bien Province, a high-risk area for human trafficking, play a group game together. 

Traffickers prey on vulnerable people, so we expect to see an increase in human trafficking and labor exploitation over the coming months. There are still a lot of travel restrictions in China at the moment, so we are unsure whether there is an increase in trafficking there right now, but we are definitely receiving more calls for help from trafficking victims who are trapped in China. It is just very difficult to reach them at the moment.

We are expecting to see an increase in migration for labor and this increases the vulnerability of children if both parents leave to earn an income or even when children are forced to migrate for work themselves, as this means they often have to enter into illegal or dangerous employment. There is also a high risk that those migrating in search or labor do so illegally out of desperation, which increases the risk of being arrested or detained in foreign countries with no legal advocacy or salary to send home.

Presumably, international travel bans are having a major effect on Blue Dragon’s ability to rescue victims of human trafficking from China. Are you still able to carry out any rescues at this time?

Travel bans have had a huge impact on victims of human trafficking. They are calling for help, yet we are restricted in what we can do. There are very strict travel bans and regulations in China and Vietnam and at international border crossings. We have been able to carry out some rescues of victims of human trafficking, but a very small number. All of those rescued have been or are currently in quarantine for two weeks before they are able to return home, and some are still unable to return home due to restrictions within some areas of Vietnam. We currently have more than 30 victims still in slavery who have called for help and who we are in contact with. All we can do is give them hope and keep them holding on until we can get to them. This is very difficult emotionally and psychologically, both for them and our team who are in contact with them.

Survivors of human trafficking watch the sunrise breaking over the horizon. 

With so many countries around the world trying to cope with a devastating pandemic and a global recession looming, the crisis is affecting funding available for NGOs too. How has this affected Blue Dragon?

Not only is this is a very difficult time for NGOs, it’s also a troubling time for all of our wonderful supporters around the world. Blue Dragon has been focused on reducing expenses where possible while ensuring vital support is provided to the children and families we work with who are already in crisis. We are all in this together, no one is immune to the impact of the global situation. Blue Dragon and our donors share a commitment to rescuing and caring for Vietnamese children and families in crisis.

Some of our donors have had to reduce their donations or cease them altogether for the time being, whereas others are in a position to give additional funds. We even have support from new donors who are responding to the call for help and are able to give a little at this time, but we are not sure how long that will last so there is a lot of uncertainty. We are having to be very responsive to the daily situation and changes while thinking strategically for the long-term. 

Like all other organizations, businesses and individuals at the moment, we know there will be long-term impacts, so while we are operating in crisis mode right now, we are preparing for long-lasting effects as well. We are thinking through a few different contingency plans and strategies to prepare us for the coming months and years, including worst-case scenarios. Yet the calls for help are increasing and we will not stop responding — we are here for the long term.

I hear you’ve launched an emergency appeal. Could you tell us more about this? What will these funds be used for?

Blue Dragon will absolutely not give up on responding to calls for help from people in slavery or getting children off the streets, no matter how difficult it gets. Blue Dragon is continuing to work throughout this crisis to ensure children are fed, safe and cared for. We launched an emergency appeal last week to raise funds to ensure we are able to provide basic needs like food, shelter and health care to those most in need, while also being able to care for and educate young people throughout the coming year.

A young student enjoys an art exercise organized by Blue Dragon.  

Amid such uncertainty, how are you planning for the future?

As soon as the severity of the crisis became clear, we started asking ourselves how we could cut expenses to a minimum in order to ensure our work can continue. Blue Dragon needs to be here for the long term — as long as there’s human trafficking or street kids, our work will always be important. Yet the reality is that we don’t have many non-essential costs, so this has been a very hard time. We’ve shifted our focus to dealing with the life-and-death cases, and caring for kids and families who really would have nobody to help them if not for us. And, like so many others, we’ve cut our salaries right back to survival levels only. So, for the future, we will continue to focus on the most pressing and urgent cases. Our outreach work will continue, along with emergency support and giving hope to victims of human trafficking trapped in slavery until we are able to get them out, support them during their recovery, and allow them to reclaim their lives.

To contribute to Blue Dragon's emergency appeal, make a donation here.

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