Que Phong’s Story
In 2004, Que Phong, a Vietnamese man then in his late 20s, decided to get help for his heroin addiction. He traveled to Binh Phuoc, a remote border province in southern Vietnam that holds a number of government institutions, called “Centers for Social Education and Labor” or “Centers for Post Rehabilitation Management,” which advertise themselves as providing drug dependency treatment. Que Phong signed up for what he thought would be 12 months of therapy. Instead, he endured five years of forced labor, torture, and abuse.
Que Phong’s “treatment” consisted of performing agricultural work for the center, which he estimated held 800 other detainees. He was given a quota of cashews to husk and peel. Although the caustic resin from the cashews burnt his hands, he was forced to work for six or seven hours a day. Asked why he, and others, agreed to perform the work for little to no pay, Que Phong explained, “If you refused to work they slapped you. If you still refused to work then they sent you to the punishment room. Everyone worked.”
Over the past five years, Human Rights Watch has spoken to hundreds of formerly detained drug users in Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Lao PDR. Very few sought treatment voluntarily like Que Phong. Rather, in each country, we heard from children, men and women, some young and some hardened by years of detention, who were picked up by the police or local authorities and sent to drug detention centers without ever having had access to legal representation, without having seen a judge, and without being able to appeal compulsory “treatment” ranging from six months to five years in length.
Individuals were sometimes identified by the police as they sought access to HIV prevention or testing programs. Other times family members notified, or paid, police to take them away, hoping that they might get help with real, or sometimes imagined, drug dependency problems. In each country we heard of individuals denied access to health care and physically, and sometimes sexually, abused. No one described receiving effective, evidence-based drug dependency treatment, and after spending years being forced to work or to perform vigorous exercise to “sweat out toxins” or simply languishing purposelessly in crowded cells or courtyards, few spoke of being better able to address addiction upon their release than upon their entry. In fact, upon their release, traumatized and marginalized by their families and society, those we spoke with talked about broken lives and greater vulnerability to HIV infection or overdose.
Although he had signed up voluntarily, Que Phong was not free to the leave the “treatment center” he had entered. And each time it seemed his period of “treatment” was over, the center’s management told him that it was extended, first by an extra year, then by an extra three years. Throughout this period, he continued to work. He was beaten on numerous occasions. Once, when he was caught playing cards with other detainees, the rehabilitation center staff tied his hands behind his back and beat him with a truncheon for an hour. Throughout the five years he spent in “treatment,” he received no therapy or counseling for his drug use. After his release and return to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, Que Phong returned to smoking and injecting heroin. When Human Rights Watch spoke to him in 2010, he said that he had not used heroin for several months. After describing his experiences being forced to work, tortured, and denied drug dependency treatment, Que Phong said simply, “The time and work in the center didn’t help me.”
Note on terminology and references:
Drug detention centers are referred to by multiple names. Certain governments call the centers “reform,” “reeducation,” “rehabilitation,” or “treatment” centers. International researchers often refer to the centers as “treatment” or “in-patient” facilities. Human Rights Watch has chosen to use the term “detention centers” to emphasize the non-voluntary nature of the centers and the lack of evidence-based medicine or therapy offered.
All quotes from individuals detained in drug detention centers come from previously published reports.
 See reference 3.