IT’S an insidious, multibillion-dollar industry that deals in the trade of people for forced labour or sexual exploitation.
But, to the Western world, human trafficking can be an abstract and interpersonal issue. And that’s how Newcastle’s Ben Randall felt.
That was, of course, until his friends started disappearing.
An award-winning filmmaker and photographer, Mr Randall set off in 2013 on an epic search across Asia to find 100 people he had photographed five years earlier and bring attention to the monstrous crime of human trafficking.
His mission, which spanned 10 months, 10 countries and 40,000 kilometres, became known as The Human, Earth Project.
Along the way he set himself the near impossible task of finding two young Hmong girls he had met while travelling through the mountainous regions of Vietnam in 2010.
The 16-year-old girls, known only as M and P, had been kidnapped and trafficked across the border into China to be sold as wives.
His incredible journey to contact, find and meet with two girls lost among a country of 1.357billion people is one of persistence and courage and will be featured in his upcoming documentary, Sisters for Sale.
The Newcastle Herald caught up with Mr Randall this week while he was in Newcastle to visit his family. He discussed the emotional and often frustrating task of trying to make even the smallest dent in the fastest-growing transnational criminal industry.
The one-child policy and cultural preference for male children has resulted in an alarming shortage of women in China and, as a result, a high demand for foreign women.
Mr Randall points out the most vulnerable to human trafficking are the poor and uneducated.
Traffickers exploit their lack of opportunities and lure them with the promise of a better life.
In Sa Pa, where M and P are from, human trafficking is a huge problem.
Some girls are taken and never return, some are sold into prostitution and some come back only to traffic more girls.
Mr Randall was in Nepal in 2011 when he heard from a friend in Vietnam that M had been abducted.
He later found out P had also been taken and both were believed to be in China.
‘‘The first reaction was shock and helplessness,’’ he said.
‘‘I didn’t think there was anything I could do, so I didn’t do anything for about a year, and it was just gnawing away at the back of my mind. When I was trying to work out what I could do to raise awareness of human trafficking and this particular issue, I thought of the people I had photographed during my first trip through Asia who were quite poor and poorly educated and fit the demographic most at risk of human trafficking.
‘‘So I decided to go back and repeat that journey and try to find as many as I could. I ended up finding 80 from that group.
‘‘It was quite an adventure.’’
But Mr Randall admitted he thought it would be impossible to find M and P.
They were somewhere in the populous and vast lands of China, hidden away from the world.
But fortunately P had managed to contact her family in Vietnam, providing Mr Randall with a phone number. It was a start, a loose string in an otherwise tightly wound ball.
‘‘It was a long process. It took five months to find them both,’’ Mr Randall said.
‘‘We had a phone number and it turned out the two girls were actually in contact with each other in China, which is actually quite strange because the only people who could have put them in contact is their traffickers.
‘‘They were in separate regions, about 24 hours’ travel from each other. ‘‘Even once I was able to actually contact and speak to the two girls, it was still quite a process to actually locate them. They couldn’t read or write and they had really no idea where they were.’’
Mr Randall said P was in the Pearl River Delta Mega City, in Guangdong province, which is home to more than 44 million people.
It took three days to find her.
‘‘She had more freedom to move around the city and was quite free to call anywhere in China or Vietnam,’’ Mr Randall said.
M was in a village in the north. It took two weeks to narrow down her location.
‘‘[M] didn’t know where she was, she didn’t know the name of the village or what the name of the town near her village was,’’ Mr Randall said.
‘‘As she told me, she was in an area with no mountains, no rivers and no distinguishing features but houses and cucumbers.
‘‘It was a very long process to track her down.’’
The feeling of reuniting with the girls and providing them their first connection with the outside world in three years was ‘‘incredible’’, Mr Randall said.
‘‘I had gone into this project with the belief that it was impossible,’’ he said. ‘‘It is just fantastic when something like that actually happens.
‘‘It was really emotional for them.
‘‘By that point it was about three years that they had been gone.
‘‘To a degree they had accepted their new reality, their new lives in China. So it was pretty overwhelming for them.’’
Mr Randall said after meeting with the girls he expected it to be a ‘‘fairly simple’’ process of returning them home.
But it proved to be another challenge. Both girls had given birth to children since being taken to China as their main purpose was to act as ‘‘baby-making machines’’ for their new ‘‘husbands’’.
The other problem for M was what her family back home would think.
Sadly, in a very traditional society, there is a stigma around girls who have been kidnapped and forced into marriage.
But Mr Randall wanted to give both girls something they had been denied for three years – a choice.
He could put them in touch with a non-government organisation, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, which could rescue them and whisk them back across the border to Vietnam.
P was adamant she wanted to leave, but when Blue Dragon came for her, she told them they were too late.
She had fled three days earlier and made the 1500-kilometre journey across China to the Vietnam border alone by bus.
But the decision has been harder for M.
‘‘She is scared of burning that bridge. If things don’t work out in Vietnam, she wants the option of going back to her child in China.
‘‘So it is actually incredibly complicated and she hasn’t been able to work it out. She thought she would be able to leave her child, and that has turned out much more difficult than anticipated.
‘‘I couldn’t say at this stage if she is ever going to come back or not.’’
He said his physical journey across Asia had been emotionally taxing as well.
‘‘I came in on the ground level and didn’t have anything other than a vague background knowledge of human trafficking,’’ Mr Randall said.
‘‘It’s been a fascinating process meeting experts in the field, people who are actually undertaking these rescues from China, meeting the family and friends who have all been affected by this and other survivors.
‘‘It’s been a really powerful journey. Emotional at times, difficult at times, but worthwhile.’’