The Vietnamese government must immediately close all drug detention centers to allow for a thorough investigation into allegations of forced labor and other abuses, a human rights group said Tuesday.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report that the detention centers, which are mandated to treat and rehabilitate inmates, amount to “little more than forced labor camps” where drug users work six days a week manufacturing goods.
People detained by the police in Vietnam for using drugs are held without due process for years, forced to work for little or no pay, and are subjected to physical violence in captivity, the rights group said.
The report, which was based on the experiences of people detained in 14 centers overseen by the Ho Chi Minh City municipal government, said that detainees who refused to work, or violated center rules, were subjected to punishment that sometimes included torture.
Joe Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch, said tens of thousands of men, women, and children are held against their will in government-run forced labor centers in Vietnam.
“This is not drug treatment, the centers should be closed, and these people should be released,” he said.
Call for pressure
Human Rights Watch also called on foreign aid donors to Vietnam and companies doing business in the country to press for the closure of the government-run drug detention centers.
It said international donors who support the centers, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, which oversees them, in some cases allow the government to continue to detain HIV-positive drug users who are reported to make up as much as 60 percent of the detained population.
HIV-positive detainees are entitled to release under Vietnamese law if the centers cannot provide them with adequate medical care. Human Rights Watch said most centers offer no antiretroviral treatment or even basic health care to detainees.
The group said it is currently investigating companies that may have contracted with the detention centers to procure products produced through forced labor, though the lack of transparency or any publicly accessible list of companies made corroborating the involvement of these entities difficult.
“Forced labor is not treatment, and profit-making is not rehabilitation,” Amon said. “Donors should recognize that building the capacity of these centers perpetuates injustice, and companies should make sure their contractors and suppliers are not using goods from these centers.”
Human Rights Watch identified two Vietnamese companies, Son Long JSC, a cashew processing company, and Tran Boi Production Co. Ltd., which manufactures plastic goods, as among the companies whose products detainees said they were forced to process. Neither has responded to inquiries from the rights group.
Origin of centers
Vietnam’s system of forced labor for drug users originated in the country’s “re-education through labor” camps for addicts and sex workers in the aftermath of the communist north’s victory over the south in 1975.
In the 1990’s, the policy received renewed political support during a campaign to eradicate “social evils,” including drug use, and has continued to expand to include 123 centers as of early 2011, Human Rights Watch said.
The rights group said that people are commonly held in the centers after being detained by police or “volunteered” by family members for detention, though some users volunteer themselves, thinking that the centers provide effective drug treatment.
But former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had been sent to the centers without formal trials or legal representation and were unaware of any means to review or appeal the decision to detain them.
Volunteer detainees said they were not free to leave on their own.
Others said they had been forced to perform menial labor for long periods, processing cashews, farming, sewing clothing and shopping bags, working construction, and manufacturing products made from wood, plastic, bamboo, and rattan.
Detainees said they had worked for years without receiving pay, or were paid a fraction of the minimum wage from which center management additionally deducts food, lodging, and “management fees.”
Detainees also suffered severe forms of punishment for violating center rules.
One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that after he was caught trying to break out of his facility, his captors beat his legs so that he could no longer escape and then shocked him with an electric baton before putting him in solitary confinement for a month.
Escape attempts by detainees desperate to flee inhumane conditions in the drug centers are not uncommon.
In May nearly 600 inmates at the rehabilitation center No. 2 in the northern port city of Haiphong overpowered security guards and escaped after one detainee called on his comrades to escape.
A security official at the center told the Associated Press that some 40 guards attempted to hold off 578 inmates holding canes and bricks, but had been overpowered.
The inmates smashed the windshields of several cars, including a police car, along their way to nearby Kien An District.
More than 100 inmates returned to the center on their own, while several others were recaptured by police in later weeks.
Several large escapes have been reported in recent years following a government order to increase the period of mandatory rehab treatment from one to two years.
Vietnam says there are more than 140,000 addicts in the country, many of them intravenous drug users.
The government has said it will reduce the number of drug users in Vietnam by between 30 and 40 percent by 2020.
In its annual Human Rights Report, the U.S. State Department said that more than 33,000 drug users were living in forced detoxification labor camps in 2010. The overwhelming majority of the detainees were administratively sentenced to two years without judicial review.
It said individuals sentenced to detention facilities were forced to meet work quotas to pay for services and the cost of their detention.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.