Late on Sunday night up to 600 people smashed through the walls and windows of a drug “rehabilitation” center in southern Vietnam and made a break for freedom. By mid-morning Monday, more than 300 had been recaptured and sent back to the center, while police searched for over 200 others.    

A guard keeps an eye on detainees before they head to their morning work session. Duc Hanh is one of 16 drug detention centers under the administration of Ho Chi Minh City authorities. © 2011 Private

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This isn’t rare in Vietnam. Nearly 600 detainees broke out of a center in the northern city of Haiphong in May 2010, around 400 escaped a center in Hai Phong in September 2014, and another 450 fled a center in the country's southern province of Ba Ria Vung Tau in April this year. There have been plenty other such escapes too.

Why are people so desperate to flee “rehabilitation” in Vietnam? Official Vietnamese media gave one reason for this latest breakout: overcrowding. The center has a capacity for around 600 people, but the number of detainees prior to the escape was 1,481.

The larger point is that these people shouldn’t be in these centers in the first place. When we researched conditions in drug detention centers in southern Vietnam, former detainees told us they were held without due process for up to five years, and subject to beatings by guards or held in solitary confinement in “disciplinary rooms” for breaking center rules. Not one of them described any form of scientifically or medically-appropriate drug dependency treatment.

Rehab Archipelago: Abuses in Vietnam Drug Detention Centers

So what do detainees do? The Ministry of Labor that oversees the centers calls it "labor therapy”. There’s no standard type of labor performed, although former detainees from many centers told us that cashew nut processing is common. Shelling five kilos of cashews – a typical daily work quota - requires one nut to be opened about every six seconds, at a rate of about 10 nuts per minute, for eight hours. Those who do not or cannot meet work quotas are beaten. Some detainees told us they did this six days a week for five years.

That’s not drug dependency treatment but forced labor. In 2012, the UN demanded Vietnam and other countries with drug detention centers close them and provide voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment for those in genuine need. But Vietnam’s drug detention centers continue to ruin the lives of people who use drugs and subject them to years of abuse and forced labor. No surprise that those stuck in them are so desperate for their freedom.