HRW Condemns Vietnam Detention Facilities

Due to Vietnam being close to drug producing areas it has meant that drug use within the country has always been an issue, as a United Nations consultant said “Vietnam is on a major heroin trafficking route and heroin always leaks off the pipeline.”  The Vietnamese as far back as 2000 have had a needle exchange program and within the last few years started a pilot methadone program which has been praised by the United Nations. However if the recent report by the Human Rights Watch is to be believed then this is just an illusion hiding the abuse happening within treatment camps. In these treatment camps drug users are forced into work with at most being paid 1/3rd of the minimum wage. If this is not bad enough there are claims that patients in these detention facilities are routinely beaten, shocked and starved.


Within 11 years the number of detainment centres has doubled from 53 to 110 centres. Many of the people who come to these centres are being forced into them. The camps revolve round a regime of labour such as processing cashew nuts for up to 10 hours a day with a set quota that inmates have to reach if they don’t then they can expect harsh punishments such as being beaten or being put in the ‘discipline room’.  The Vietnamese government calls it “Working treatment therapy” though many call it forced or slave labour.


The Ministry of Labour defends itself in an assessment talking about labour in the camps being used “in order to make products which are helpful for the daily life of the resident”. It seems like the Ministry of Labour believes that processing cashew nuts which in some cases according to some sources are being exported overseas somehow enriches the lives of ‘residents’. This despite the fact that ‘residents’ are forced to work 10 hours a day processing cashew nuts for years whilst being beaten if they do not get to the daily quota. If this is the Ministry of Labour’s way of providing something helpful for the daily lives of the ‘resident’ then they have failed spectacularly.


The state run media of course agrees with the Ministry of Labour lamenting forced labour as a way of learning new skills. In one state run newspaper the author said that detainees “are given the chance to learn the skill of cashew nuts processing.” The way they put it seems to make it sound like an opportunity when instead it seems merely like an opportunistic situation by the centres and businesses who force detainees to work in order to maximise their profits. Especially since the ‘skills’ of peeling a cashew nut takes at most an hour and not 4 years of menial repetition.


What the state run newspaper and government says is completely in contrast to what former detainees have said about their mandatory time in these facilities. Many of the detainees told HRW (Human Rights Watch) that they would do the same menial task for months and in some cases even years, they said there was strict enforcement of production quota and a lack of consideration for personal aspirations. If this was a ‘vocational course’ teaching detainees new skills then surely teaching someone how to peel a cashew nut shouldn’t take months or even years. The fact that officers seem to enforce production quotas also seems to indicate that this is no camp of personal development or training but merely a factory where you’re lucky to get even close to minimum wage.


Even if detainees get a wage they are lucky to see any of it, the staff at the detention facility usually say that the money they have earned doing mandatory menial labour  pays for their food, water and there accommodation which hardly seems fair considering they were forced into the centres. They are treated like prisoners in these camps and unfairly, they are paying to be abused and mistreated. As one former detainee says “On paper I earned [VND] 120,000 a month but they took it. The centre staff said it paid for our food and clothes.” In fact many former detainees come out of the detention facilities owing it money as according to the HRW the food rations are insufficient forcing detainees to purchase extra food from the detention centre with credit or family member’s deposits. As one former detainee says “The money I made working I used for soap and extra food and personal items, but it was not enough. When I left I owed the centre VND700,000 ($ 33.50).” 


Even children as young as 14 are forced to work in these camps and just like the adults they are regularly beaten and taking to the disciplinary rooms where food rations are reduced even more, access to bathing is limited and family visits prohibited. One former detainee who was detained whilst still being a child said “The staff beat me on the arm and back with a truncheon”. Even the rights of children are thrown away at these detention facilities the vulnerable in society become the target by people who are supposed to be there to help them not punish them.


The HRW report claims that companies who sourced products from detention centres are eligible for tax exemptions. This in essence increases the chance of companies using drug detention facilities as a way of keeping costs down and it seems the Vietnamese government is encouraging it by providing a tax exception. So far as of the publication of this article the Vietnamese government has not responded to an email asking them whether after the HRW report if they are considering changing this law to prevent violations. Indeed it would be very interesting to hear why such a law exists considering all it does is encourages profiteering at the expense of the ‘residents’.


The fact that this practice is illegal under international law does not seem to stop Vietnam from forcing those in these detention facilities to work. Under international law you can’t force someone to work under threat of penalties such as beatings yet Vietnam seem to be getting away with it. These people who have come into these centres have not come because they have been convicted or are criminals but are there because they are deemed by the state to need help. In some rare cases people voluntarily go into these centres only to be treated the same way and to find that they are not allowed to leave. By having a system like this Vietnam is not helping drug users but instead actively scaring them away. Such places will make drug addicts in Vietnam unwilling to seek help because of the fear of being locked up in a place where the only treatment you get is a large dose of slave labour followed by a frequent dose of beatings. If they do get locked up in a detention facility then there is a risk that they will end up coming out in debt, no wonder the relapse rate is so high in Vietnam.


A spokesperson for the government tried to defend the detention centres by saying that “Therapeutic labour is part of the rehabilitation process to help those undergoing detox treatments improve their health, life and occupational skills and become aware of the value of labour as well as their responsibility to their families and the society.” Being apparently beaten if they don’t get to the quota or work hard enough does not seem like helping someone become ‘aware of the value of labour’ if anything all it does is create resentment and disillusionment. Neither does food apparently being barely enough to survive on improve health, nor is processing cashew nuts all day good for one’s health as one man said "I would sometimes inhale the dust from the skins, and that would make me cough". If anything the lives of those who have gone into these places has not improved for the better but has gotten worse because of the apparent torment they face within these undignified camps. All compulsory detoxification does is further stigmatize drug users making them even more withdrawn from society and cause further distress for the families.


The claim by the spokesperson that “Reality over the past years proved that compulsory detoxification is a humane, efficient measure that benefits the addicts themselves as well as the community and society” is absolutely ridiculous. Firstly compulsory detoxification is opposed by a large percentage of organisations such as The World Medical Association, UNAIDS, World Health Organization and UNODC. Surely if it was really that effective then organisations would at least recognise that, instead they all condemn it. Secondly all compulsory detoxification has proven in Vietnam is that it doesn’t work especially when you consider the fact that the WHO (World Health Organisation) believes the relapse rates are at least 95% in Vietnam!


Some Western companies have been linked to these camps in many cases though it’s down to the fact that due to sub contracting they don’t actually know the treatment conditions of the labour employed to make their products. In many situations the companies which HRW contacted claimed they knew nothing about labour in detention facilities being used and the ones listed in the report after being told by HRW said that they would stop doing business with sub contractors which were identified as having links to drug detention facilities.


Vietnam is not an isolated case in this region if anything it is just one example of detention facilities being used across the region.  The HRW did a report on Cambodia too (Skin on the Cable) where many inmates told their stories about how they were routinely beaten, forced into giving blood and in some cases being raped in these mandatory detention facilities. In China mandatory detention can last up to seven years according to some sources with little protection for drug addicts. It seems like it is a systematic failure in South East Asia about how to treat people who are addicted to drugs.


The only country which could be seen as a slight exception is Malaysia. Malaysia used to be a country which like its South East Asian neighbours, practised mandatory drug treatment but has in recent years started closing down the mandatory dentition facility now it has only half of what it had. The result is in 2008 there was a 40% decline in new HIV cases compared to four years before when there was more emphasis on mandatory drug detention.


It is also worth noting that international donors and NGO’s still actively donate to Vietnam’s program. Many of these NGO’s who actively help fund Vietnam’s program visit the detention facilities often yet have never really publically condemned or brought to attention what was happening this is especially peculiar considering forced labour is not supported by the majority of organisations. It is unknown how much they knew about what was happening in Vietnam though it seems a bit weird that considering they visited these centres that they didn’t know what was going on. It could be perhaps be due to the fact that these aid organisations are caught with two options either withdrawing funds completely forcing detention centres to become worse and cooperation in other programs to cease (such as needle exchanges) or try to work with the Vietnamese government to try and change detention centres or at the very least improve them.


The UNODC said that “prior to the publication of the HRW report, UNODC had not received any specific reports of suspected violations of human rights in administrative detention centres in Vietnam." Another organisation which provided funding, The World Bank said "we have not received any reports of human rights violations in the drug rehabilitation clinics supported by (our) project". Even though the report has come out these organisations don’t seem to be very serious about pursuing or withdrawing funding for such detention centres. You would think with the complete lack of evidence showing any benefits of these programs and in some cases proof of HIV spreading more rapidly within these detention facilities would cause them to reconsider their position.


Countries such as Vietnam need to come to a realization that an inhumane treatment where all that is involved is menial tasks does not help. Contrary to some high ranking government officials opinions in South East Asia sweating does not ‘cure’ drug dependence neither does it sweat out the apparent “badness”. That is the problem there is a fundamental flaw when drug addicts are thought as bad, as criminals and it leads to programs which treat drug dependent people as criminals and not victims. This situation really does highlight the need for better drug laws, it is not just those who use drugs which are affected negatively by the way Vietnam goes about drug treatment but the whole of society.