Rights agencies and law enforcement organizations from Vietnam and China are kicking off a new effort to fight human trafficking across their border. They are starting with education programs to warn impoverished Vietnamese villagers of the dangers.
Vietnamese officials are unable to say how many women and children are trafficked from Vietnam into China each year. But they say the numbers are rising.
Luong Van Giang, vice director of intelligence in Vietnam's Border Guard, said 167 cases had been discovered in the first six months of this year, up from 105 in the same period last year. And those cases involved several hundred victims.
Giang says the traffickers were caught on their way across the border, after tip-offs were received from Vietnamese organized crime groups and other sources.
Rights agencies and police estimate the number of Vietnamese being trafficked to China is far higher than the number of those rescued.
At a recent conference on trafficking in Hanoi, UNICEF's representative in Vietnam, Jesper Morch, said trafficking typically rises in impoverished countries like Vietnam that are rapidly industrializing and developing.
Morch says economic growth raises the demand for workers, while part of the population remains poor enough to ensure a steady supply of people vulnerable to traffickers.
Many trafficking victims are tricked with promises of good jobs or free education, and then find themselves kidnapped to another country, without a passport or money to leave.
Tan Xeping, the vice chairman of the Chinese Women's Union in Guangxi province, says traffickers can make huge amounts of money.
Tan says that women and children trafficked into China typically worked as housemaids and factory workers, or are sold into marriage to Chinese men.
Tan does not mention what is probably the chief destination for trafficked Vietnamese women: prostitution. Last week in the border province of Lang Son, Chinese authorities returned three Vietnamese women who had been forced into the sex industry in China.
Human trafficking has a long history along the Vietnamese-Chinese border. In the French colonial period, gangs operating out of Hong Kong and Macau kidnapped women and children and smuggled them to brothels. Police often discovered victims hidden in baskets on cargo boats.
These days, the border guard's Giang says it can be harder to spot trafficking victims. They usually are not tied up.
Giang says the police generally make arrests only when they have information in advance, or if they see "strange gestures," such as a person's hands being held too tightly.
The conference focused on community awareness programs to make potential victims less likely to be taken in by traffickers. Aid agencies and police officials looked at ways to spread the word about the hazards.