Tue, Dec 12, 2017 - Page 13 News List

Cold turkey at Vietnam’s compulsory drug rehab centers

The state-sponsored centers are, critics say, little more than forced labor camps that do little to help drug addicts

By Jenny Vaughan  /  AFP, HAIPHONG, Vietnam

Inmates work in a fruit garden inside the compound of a drug rehabilitation center last month in the northern Vietnamese city of Haiphong.

Photo: AFP

During four years of compulsory rehab in Vietnam, Trung spent his drug-free days gluing together false eyelashes as part of what authorities billed as valuable “work therapy” for his heroin addiction. But critics say the work of Trung and tens of thousands of others is tantamount to forced labor that rarely helps users extinguish their addiction. Police sent Trung to a state-sponsored rehab center on the outskirts of Hanoi, one of 132 in Vietnam, where he says he faced routine beatings from guards and hours of labor for nominal pay.

“Life there, from eating, to walking, to sleeping, to working — there was no human rights at all,” explained the 50-year-old, who first began using drugs some three decades ago.

He started using again soon after his release in 2014 — up to 80 percent of addicts from the centers relapse, according to official figures. Trung’s labor therapy has since been replaced by a daily shot of methadone from a government-run drop-in clinic, which he insists is the only effective treatment he’s had. Today he says he is keeping the addiction at bay, and is trying to mend ties with his only son.


Between 2014 and last year more than 65,000 addicts cycled through the centers, usually a mix of compulsory patients sent by police with those admitted by exasperated relatives. Sometimes they house other marginal groups — the mentally ill and disabled, the homeless, the elderly — along with addicts like Trung, who support the treatment model on paper even if they resent the abuse inside.

Most will stay for one or two years, or up to four if they are deemed unfit for release, and are subject to a range of daily labor — from farming cashews to making sportswear for Western clothing brands, which they can sometimes earn a meager salary from. Rights groups accuse officials at the centers of skimming from those salaries or pocketing boarding fees paid by some users’ families, and say addicts are detained against their will.

“These are a failure in terms of drug treatment, but they’re incredibly successful in terms of generating money for government functionaries who run the centers,” said Richard Pearshouse, an associate director at Human Rights Watch who authored a report about the facilities. Though similar centers exist throughout Asia, experts say the term length and the sheer number of facilities in Vietnam set it apart.


Conditions inside vary widely, though several overcrowded centers have experienced mass breakouts. The government has acknowledged the need to reform the facilities and has softened drug policies, piloting community-based treatment and methadone clinics.

“Vietnamese laws and regulations are being perfected, especially when it comes to drug rehabilitation and treatment, to consider drug addicts patients,” said Le Thanh Tung, director of the Department of Social Evils Prevention in Haiphong city. The center houses some 500 addicts — mostly admitted by relatives — who after an initial period of cold turkey withdrawal behind padlocked doors are moved to dorm rooms.

Once clean, they are put to work sewing shoes or tending vegetable gardens and can receive vocational training as electricians or carpenters.

Many in Vietnam think the scheme is a good thing.

“Drug addicts do nothing good for the family or the community, they should be locked away,” said Ms Luong, mother of two heroin-addicted sons. “When you have a drug addict in your house, you live in hell. I have two as such,” she told AFP in tears.

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