The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking: “Sister, Why Doesn’t Anything Change?”


This article was originally published in the October 6, 2009 edition of The Nation; research for the article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. 

Gary Haugen is cradling the padlocks in his thick hands. A former high
school football player–bristly crew cut, broad shoulders squeezed into
a dress shirt–Haugen has more the mien of a military man than a lawyer,
although his image is in keeping with the muscular work of the
organization he founded and heads. The president of the International
Justice Mission, an evangelical Christian organization devoted to
combating human rights abuses in the developing world, Haugen is musing
over the mementos of IJM’s work in India and Cambodia. The padlocks look
ordinary enough: heavy brass, a squat square one, a round one with a
key. But they had once hung on the doors of brothels, until local law
enforcement busted the establishments in raids initiated by IJM.

"Have you been to Tuol Sleng?" Haugen asks, looking down at the
padlocks. He is speaking of the central Khmer Rouge detention center in
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, now a museum filled with photographs of the
thousands who perished at the prison. "There it is–you see a factory
where people got up every day and then went to work, and their job was
to torture people as painfully and horribly as possible to extract a
confession from them and then kill them.

"A lock on a brothel, for me, represents this element of violence and
force," says Haugen. "The lock is on the outside of the door, not
inside."

For Haugen, the locks are reminders of his calling: to break the chain
of human rights abuses, one person at a time. He argues that the main
problem facing the disenfranchised is not one of hunger, homelessness,
lack of education or disease. Rather, the root cause of much of the
suffering in the developing world is the failure of the criminal justice
system to protect the poor from violence–the brutality that robs them
of food, home, liberty and dignity.

In an effort to counter those failures, IJM marshals more than 300
Christian lawyers, law enforcement specialists and social workers who
collaborate with local counterparts and police to provide services to
victims of slave labor, sexual abuse, police brutality, illegal
detention and land seizure. In the case of its best-known and most
controversial work–brothel raids–IJM provides evidence of trafficking
to police in countries including India, Cambodia, the Philippines and,
in the past, Thailand; and it collaborates on "interventions" to remove
victims from the establishments and arrest and prosecute their abusers.
Although the raids have undoubtedly saved a number of trafficking
victims from exploitation, human rights advocates have criticized the
interventions for disrupting HIV-outreach efforts, heightening the
potential for police brutality and subjecting adult sex workers and
trafficking victims to possible deportation or long involuntary stays in
shelters.

In light of the organization’s tactics, Haugen’s mention of Tuol Sleng
is an uneasy one that points out the potential perils of IJM’s
approach–an example of state power used to prey on, rather than
protect, its populace. Haugen acknowledges that law enforcement agents
have often been the perpetrators of abuse, and he has testified against
this police corruption in Congress. Nonetheless, he has based his
decision to work with local police on the premise that power can be
harnessed to bring about justice–especially when tethered to divine
aims. As Haugen writes in his book Good News About Injustice,
"God is the ultimate power and authority in the universe, so justice
occurs when power and authority is exercised in conformity with His
standards."

This philosophy found deep resonance with the Bush administration. Eager
to complement his war on terror with a parallel "soft-power strategy,"
according to his speechwriter Michael Gerson, President Bush signed on
to the "war on trafficking" with a vengeance. Although
countertrafficking funds found their way to groups that worked more
broadly on immigrants’ rights and services, much of the money went to
organizations like IJM, whose interventionist attitude was congruent
with Bush’s foreign-policy stance, and to groups that believed that
prostitution was inherently exploitative and deserving of abolishment.

Part of the appeal of the law-and-order solutions proposed by groups
like IJM is that they are highly visible and forceful responses to the
horrifying abuses faced by trafficking victims and sex workers–injury,
extortion, rape, even murder. (New York Times columnist Nicholas
Kristof tried a similarly dramatic tack when he went so far as to
purchase the freedom of two trafficked girls, with decidedly mixed
results.) The narrative that frames such vigorous interventions as the
noblest response to the scourge of sex trafficking is an understandable
one, but it skirts the economic and social problems that make recovery
so difficult for the "rescued." It also rips their lives out of context,
so that an approach that might be suitable, if still controversial, in a
country with reliable law enforcement and criminal justice systems is
applied in a country where those systems are more likely to be part of
the problem than the solution. The Obama administration seems to be
aware of these issues, but rolling back the momentum on raid work in
order to scrutinize its efficacy is a tough challenge–especially when
there is always another young victim to rescue.

In 1997 Haugen launched IJM to answer the biblical mandate to seek
justice. As he writes, "Over time, having seen the suffering of the
innocent…. More and more I find myself asking not, Where is
God?
But, Where are God’s people?" Dedicated to a "casework"
model, IJM staff work to remove victims from exploitation. IJM then
prosecutes the abusers under local law and assists victims with
"restoration" by winning them financial compensation or providing
"aftercare" services through partner organizations.

IJM’s casework approach focuses on individual rescue. As Haugen has
written, "The good shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to go find the
one lost sheep because the one mattered." Sharon Cohn Wu, IJM’s senior
vice president of justice operations, concurs. "While there are millions
of girls and women victimized every day, our work will always be about
the one," she said in a public address. "The one girl deceived. The one
girl kidnapped. The one girl raped. The one girl infected with AIDS. The
one girl needing a rescuer. To succumb to the enormity of the problem is
to fail the one. And more is required of us."

Thousands of Christians have answered Cohn Wu’s call, joining IJM campus
chapters, attending Haugen’s talks at the Saddleback and Willow Creek
leadership conferences, and swelling the organization’s budget to $22
million in 2008. IJM has become a major force in humanitarian work and
an even larger one in burgeoning evangelical activism.

IJM’s rise was fueled by the millions in federal grants it received
under the Bush administration, which also expanded the federal law on
trafficking. Before the Bush era, the law created a State Department
office to rank–and potentially sanction–countries on the basis of
their countertrafficking efforts in its annual "Trafficking in Persons"
report. When the law was reauthorized under Bush, however, it included a
clause to suspend funding to organizations that "promote, support, or
advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution." Those applying
for funds for HIV education or outreach were subject to the same clause.

President Bush then released anti-trafficking funds to feminist
anti-prostitution groups and to faith-based organizations like IJM. The
funding decision outraged HIV-education NGOs and sex workers’ unions, a
number of which were cut out of HIV-outreach and countertrafficking
funding or refused it in protest. Human rights advocates, meanwhile,
raised concerns that IJM’s criminal justice approach would cause
"collateral damage"–putting women and girls on a collision course with
police brutality, detention and deportation, and disrupting HIV services
while failing to address the economic inequities that would replace one
rescued girl with another victim.

Those concerns fell on deaf ears. IJM began receiving federal funding in
2002, and by the end of 2010 the organization will have received more
than $4 million from the government, including a $500,000 grant to open
an office–established just last January–to work against trafficking
for forced prostitution in Samar, the Philippines.

IJM’s ardent sense of mission–its moral clarity about justice work,
dedication to the individual and passionate desire to find relief for
victims–brought a revitalized engagement to believers and those
concerned about trafficking. But those qualities often led to a quagmire
in IJM’s early years. Although the organization has refined its
techniques, its operations have ambiguous, and sometimes troubling,
results on the ground.

As for IJM’s symbolic quest to provide individual rescue, finding "the
one" for whom the group toiled and whom IJM had "saved" would prove
nearly impossible. She is a cipher, a repository of innocence and
redemptive hope that seemed to call more loudly to the IJM staff than
the voices of trafficking victims and sex workers who decried the raids
and their experiences of police brutality. "The one" was a symbol that
IJM staff would always be driven to break free, even if she would wind
up running away from her rescuers in the end. The shepherd claimed to
have benevolent aims but did not always know the way to safety.

IJM: "Cops for Christ"

Ping Pong is frowning, her formidable charm dampened by memory. The sex
worker is mulling over IJM’s work in Thailand. As a health and
legal-services advocate with the sex-worker organization Empower, she’s
seen the aftereffects firsthand.


"Oh, yes, there were problems," she says at last. "The deportation–and
back to Burma! They were desperate to leave in the first place. The long
detention. The girls running away. And the way they treated other NGOs,
just expecting them to clean up the mess afterward. Even the other
anti-trafficking groups couldn’t get along with them."

We are meeting in Empower’s Chiang Mai offices, perched over the Can-Do
Bar, an "experitainment" venue cooperatively owned by sex workers and
managed in compliance with Thai labor laws. The bar is a cavernous
space–front patio, full bar, pool table, fairy lights and two poles for
dancing.

IJM set up its Chiang Mai office in 2000, intent on tackling the
northern city’s trafficking and child-prostitution problems. Located
near the Burmese border, Chiang Mai serves as the gateway to uncertain
refuge for Burmese and ethnic Shan migrants seeking escape from a
despotic regime, or fleeing the rape and plunder of a Burmese military
determined to eradicate a Shan insurgency through the cruelest means
possible. Thailand has thrived on the underground labor of these
migrants, who often work the construction sites, wash the laundry and
sell sex–largely without benefit of documentation or legal protections.

The group’s early raids soon resulted in IJM being branded vigilante
"cowboys" and "cops for Christ" by other humanitarian workers. The
organization even busted the same brothel twice, in 2000 and 2003, each
time calling local NGOs in a panic afterward to ask for translation
help–no one had realized the frightened women and girls were Burmese
and Shan.

In accordance with Thai laws, older, voluntary prostitutes caught in IJM
raids were deported to the border, while younger ones, automatically
defined as trafficking victims on the basis of their age, were moved to
government rehabilitation centers, where they were often required to
stay for months or years, waiting to testify in court and be repatriated
directly to their families. As Thai law did not grant trafficking
victims temporary legal documents at the time of IJM operations in
country, the girls were not allowed to leave the shelter grounds. (The
new law, passed last year, allows for the possibility of temporary
residence for foreign trafficking victims, but it remains to be seen if
this provision will be implemented.)

Rather than face a potentially long period of detention, some rescuees
took matters into their own hands, knotting sheets together to escape
shelters–one was hospitalized with back injuries when she fell during
an escape attempt.

Ping Pong sighs, recalling the reaction of the women and girls rescued
in an IJM raid in 2003. "They were so startled, and said, ‘We don’t need
rescue. How can this be a rescue when we feel like we’ve been arrested?’
All their possessions were taken away, they were photographed by the
media and some of them couldn’t leave for quite a long time. The women
who get rounded up usually wind up back here and doing sex work
again–but this time with more debt from having to make the journey or
be retrafficked again…. We wrote a report critiquing the raid, but
then IJM accused us of supporting brothel owners–so we never talked to
IJM again." In a 2003 position paper, IJM had argued that Empower turned
a "blind eye" to child prostitution by failing to report brothel owners
they knew were practicing it "in order to further their work among adult
commercial sex workers."

According to Empower staff member Liz Hilton, in the late ’90s, before
IJM began its work in Thailand and when police raids were at a high,
brothel owners would occasionally drop off women and girls at the
Empower office after learning of an impending raid. Empower staff would
then assist the women in deciding what their next steps would be. Should
the brothel remain open, they could return there to work. Others sought
work elsewhere, returned home or entered shelter programs voluntarily.
Hilton says, "After they were deposited on our doorstep, well, we eat
first–it’s Thailand!–and we see what everyone needs and wants." Hilton
recalled two cases where girls under 18 were dropped off by brothel
owners, and both were referred to shelters and services. According to
Hilton, Empower made it clear to the brothel owners that "there was no
guarantee that they’d be willing to go back" and that Empower had as its
dictate "whatever the women want." Even so, "to be honest, sometimes the
best interests of the women and what they want fits more closely with
brothel owners than with the rescue organizations or police," says
Hilton, meaning that sometimes the women wanted to continue working
rather than face deportation or receive alternate vocational training.
Still, the evacuation prompted by the threat of the raid did mean that
some who wanted to leave got the chance to do so.

A number of trafficking victims from the 2003 raid initially refused to
provide their real names and addresses in order to protect themselves
and their families, according to Ping Pong. They were willing to stay in
the shelter rather than face a return to impoverished villages and the
shattering shame at the discovery of the nature of their work or the
possibility of detention in Burma for their illegal exit from the
country. Burmese officials are not above extorting the women’s families,
and Ping Pong recounted anecdotes of entire households being forced to
move because village gossip broke out after Burmese officials came to
locate the women’s relatives in the repatriation process. The victims
eventually relented and were repatriated–my efforts to find and speak
directly with women and children recovered in IJM-initiated raids in
Thailand were unsuccessful.

"IJM talks about saving an individual," says Joe Amon, director of the
health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. Amon met with
the group in 2007 to discuss its tactics. "And what’s incredible is that
it’s not clear if that individual has been saved. IJM is not clear on
how aftercare leads to protection for these kids. I asked them about
deportation of these girls. And they had no tracking for that, for any
minors that had been repatriated. That to me is incredibly troubling."

Ben Svasti is the executive director of Trafcord, a Thai organization
that provides liaison among social workers, police and lawyers on
trafficking cases. Trafcord used to work closely with IJM–the group’s
undercover investigators would hand over evidence of trafficking to
Trafcord, which would launch an inquiry and decide the best course of
action.


"Half of those IJM cases didn’t hold water," says Svasti. Part of the
problem was that IJM had difficulty differentiating between voluntary
sex workers and trafficked women and girls, a difficult task even for
Trafcord.

"IJM would go in and ask, Do you like working here?" says
Svasti. "The girl says no, and then they’d assume she wanted to be
rescued. But you very rarely get a woman who says, I like this kind of
work."

Svasti links this problem with US policies that conflate trafficking and
prostitution. "I remember talking to US officials who were confused that
there could be voluntary prostitution," he says. "They thought, ‘Why
would we need to differentiate? It’s all forced and largely the same as
trafficking. If we come across it, we should shut it down.’ If you think
that sex work is one of the worst things that can happen to a person,
then I guess you can say you are rescuing people to take them out of
it."

Christa Crawford served as IJM’s country director in Thailand in 2001
and ’02, after which she worked for the United Nations and wrote a book
on using international law to fight trafficking. As she explains it,
American perceptions of trafficking led to policies centered on
eradicating large-scale brothel prostitution, rescuing "an innocent
pre-pubescent girl victim who has been kidnapped or tricked" and
targeting traffickers who are part of international criminal rings.
"That does exist. But the on-the-ground reality often consists of the
big murky middle," says Crawford, referring to the family members,
neighbors or formerly trafficked women who often pull others into
prostitution.

"There were degrees of volition involved," Crawford continues. "Under
international law the minors can’t consent to prostitution, but it was
important to understand what they were thinking. As for the women, they
were making a rational decision under horrible conditions–to be raped
for free in Burma or paid to do commercial sex work is one situation.
For me, they are making a rational decision, but that’s a decision no
one should have to make. We should be talking about the labor laws,
migration laws and the situation in Burma–just as much as working with
the courts and police."

A high-ranking police officer at the provincial level agrees with
Crawford’s assessments. "The ‘victims’ we found intended to come and
work in prostitution. That’s the majority of the people we found, I
would say 80 or 90 percent, back then when we were working with IJM, and
now, too," he says, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I feel bad for
the women–and they get so angry about what we’re doing."

IJM harnessed US influence to pressure local NGOs and police to fall in
line. In one IJM-initiated case, Trafcord’s "slowness" in taking action
on raiding a brothel earned it a rebuke from the State Department,
according to Svasti, which raised diplomatic hackles in Thailand and in
effect severed the relationship between IJM and Thai countertrafficking
efforts.

Stymied by Thailand’s inflexible laws on detention and deportation and
shut out by Thai organizations, IJM gradually tapered off its
countertrafficking work there; now it focuses on helping ethnic
minorities file for legal citizenship. It shifted its countertrafficking
efforts to the next battlefront–a neighboring country with an appetite
for child prostitution, Cambodia.

Head north out of Phnom Penh on National Road 1 for eleven kilometers
and turn left, and you’ll find what was once Cambodia’s most notorious
haven for child prostitution. These days, visitors who come to Svay Pak
during the day will find an open-air billiards area, a few drugstores
and one or two gold shops that form part of an informal banking system
for the poor and undocumented, who display the gold as a form of
aspirational fashion or tuck it away for safekeeping. A few young men
and women are cutting and stacking rags, and farther down, past a dusty
marketplace full of the smell of overripe fruit and empty of customers,
is a recycling outpost where a woman with a scarf wound around her head
is at work crushing water bottles. Svay Pak is a town of scraps and
remnants–including a diminished child-sex trade that lingers on,
despite the efforts of IJM and the Cambodian police.

It’s a melancholy ending to what was supposed to be a happily-ever-after
story–after all, Svay Pak helped IJM make its name. The predominantly
Vietnamese village was the staging ground for IJM’s most celebrated
raid, in March 2003, which became the subject of a Dateline NBC
special and Haugen’s book Terrify No More.

"They would bring the youngest of girls and sit them on your laps in the
streets," said Patrick Stayton, who became IJM’s field office director
in 2007, after the first IJM raid. "There were girls that were anywhere
from 5 to 8. After that [IJM raid] they no longer had to have every
orifice of their body violated ten times a day…. That ended for at
least a few that day."

I first met Stayton in February 2008. The tall lawyer had a deep,
rolling voice–a natural fit for singing in a chorus, which he says
serves as "one of my outlets"–and an intense gaze that radiated moral
seriousness and genuine, if guarded, warmth.

He folded himself into a wicker chair, and we turned to his work, faith
and the classic conflict that IJM had encountered: how to balance the
needs of trafficked women and girls with the potential for disruption in
the lives of adult sex workers and the distribution of HIV services.

"I believe that God is all-powerful. He could do this, but I think it
pleases him to let his creations be his hands and feet here," he said.
"I have an opportunity to bring heaven on earth in places that are
already hell on earth. I believe in a God who created us with the
ability to feel this kind of pain, and to understand and recognize and
see it, a heart to want to do something about it. I think the evil that
happens here breaks his heart.

"Am I happy about the potential disruption? No. But I’m looking at the
girl there, the 15-year-old girl who is nothing more than an organ for
rent," he says. "That’s what we find unacceptable. And I think that IJM
has weighed that cost–I have personally weighed that cost. I wouldn’t
be working with IJM if I didn’t feel that cost was one I could take."

IJM was prepared to stake it all on its first major intervention in
Cambodia. On March 29, 2003, it staged an ambitious and massively
publicized raid. Haugen had agreed to embed a crew from Dateline,
hoping that the TV segment would create enough public outrage to force
Cambodian authorities to shut down the village, should the raid fail.


Posing as prospective clients, IJM investigators had amassed videotaped
evidence that around forty girls, some as young as 8 or 9, were being
offered for sexual services. After the raid, IJM was able to count
thirty-seven girls among the rescued; the ensuing court case resulted in
six convictions.

I was unable to meet the girls rescued in the raid or
any from subsequent interventions; shelter managers said they wanted to
protect the girls from too much media exposure. But in August 2008
Dateline ran a follow-up story with the girls, who appeared
healthy and happy, and had dreams of becoming doctors and dance
teachers.

The Svay Pak raids seemed to close on that triumphant note–but the
story after the redemptive ending is far darker, according to Peter
Sainsbury, a consultant who worked with Cambodian human rights group
LICADHO to review the IJM raid. A number of bystanders had been caught
up in the intervention, including a noodle seller suffering from high
blood pressure. Although Sainsbury notified IJM staff of her condition,
little was done to earn her release or provide her with medical care,
and she died in custody. Her body was returned to her family with teeth
missing–prison guards had used pliers to wrench out any with gold
fillings.

As for the children, a number of them were addicted to ketamine and
injectable drugs, according to Sainsbury, and cut deals with police in
the safe house in order to procure them. At least twelve of the victims
ran away, some of them later reappearing at Svay Pak to continue
prostitution, according to local sources. A police raid a year later
netted a number of the rescuees from the high-profile March 2003 IJM
raid. Within days of the later raid, all the girls had fled the shelter.

A USAID-funded "census" of sex workers in Cambodia uncovered the fact
that the number of underage children offered for prostitution actually
increased after the raid, from forty-six before to twelve directly after
to fifty-five by May 7 of that year.

"We were a little surprised at the increase after the raid," said
researcher Thomas Steinfatt by phone. "But a lot of the girls have a
debt contract. If [a girl] winds up in a shelter after a raid, she wants
to get out because her family will be pressured to pay back the debt.
They won’t be able to do that, so the 15-year-old [sister] may get sent.
Then the 13-year-old may get sent as well. That’s one way the larger
number could be accounted for. I argue that the contracts should be null
and void, but the girls and women are not going to see it that way."

Those who remained or returned to Svay Pak faced an additional
challenge: according to Sainsbury, pimps believed that local
HIV-education and social work NGOs had aided IJM and the police, and
after the raids cut off the groups’ access to the women and barred them
from providing care.

In an effort to put a definitive end to child prostitution in Svay Pak,
IJM raided the village multiple times after its initial intervention,
and the Cambodian police also conducted 100-day saturation/surveillance
operations. In his report on the impact of these initiatives, however,
French economist Frederic Thomas discovered that the raids had merely
dispersed the problem. The women and girls of Svay Pak who hadn’t
returned to Vietnam had been relocated to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the
town just outside the famous Angkor Wat ruins.

By 2007 business in Svay Pak had recovered and reappeared more covertly.
Pimps would search clients for cameras, according to Interior Ministry
and IJM sources, or use intermediaries like hotel staff and
motorcycle-taxi drivers to help deliver children from the village
directly to clients’ hotel rooms.

Shortly after its first Svay Pak raid, IJM launched a police-training
initiative in Cambodia that brought its own controversy. USAID awarded a
nearly $1 million grant to the organization to train police in
countertrafficking techniques–a decision that fueled criticism from
human rights advocates concerned about corruption. Cambodian police are
notorious for their involvement in trafficking, through extorting
protection money from brothel owners, or through assault and rape of sex
workers and trafficking victims.

According to a 2006 USAID-funded study that drew on interviews with
1,000 sex workers and sixty police officers, approximately a third of
the freelance sex workers surveyed had been raped by a policeman in the
past year; a third had been gang-raped by police. As for sex workers who
worked in brothels but also accepted clients outside, 57 percent had
been raped by a lone policeman; nearly half had been gang-raped by law
enforcement. Fifty percent of freelancers and nearly 75 percent of the
brothel group had been beaten by police in the past year.

The police themselves testified to their behavior:

Frankly speaking, I did not like sex workers in the past. I have
recently abused many hardheaded women who were working in the parks at
nighttime. I beat them when they refused sex with me…. I can’t
remember the number of beatings. Because I thought that sex workers
needed extreme sex from men [laughs]. People in my area called sex
workers pradap (meaning "equipment that people can use for doing
something," a public vagina for men). Sometimes I asked for some money
from them to buy beer or wine…. Sometimes I f***ed them on the stone
bench. I never paid them for sex…. There were many policemen who used
to work in this park and they did the same…. Now I realized that women
become sex workers because they have no job and no money to do business.
I know that sex workers have suffered a lot from men, especially men who
have guns and power like policemen. I am so sorry for what I have done
to those sex workers. Maybe at that time I was too young to know
everything in this society. About five years ago, I arrested one woman
who was walking on the street late at night. I threatened her to give me
some money. I needed money for buying beer and cigarettes. That woman
told me that she had no money. I beat and forced her to find money for
me. She took off her earring and sold it for money to buy wine for me. I
raped her on the ground near Wat Phnom. I used a condom and I raped her
three times. I beat her when she was crying for my mercy. [Respondent
silent for a while.] I will never do it again. I did many wrong things
in my life. I want POLICY [the project that performed the study] to
train police about women’s rights…. I want to be a good man and take
care of my family.

Such stories, according to a US government official who works on
anti-trafficking, speaking on condition of anonymity, raise serious
questions about "whether or not working with police as allies on this
issue was a good [policy] in Cambodia."

Indeed, the "war on trafficking" blew up in Cambodia last year. In the
wake of US pressure on trafficking and the advent of a new
countertrafficking law, the Cambodian government launched a campaign of
indiscriminate sweeps of streets and brothels. Security forces harassed
HIV-outreach workers, disrupting condom-distribution efforts, and caged
sex workers and street people in detention centers–actions that drew
criticism from UN agencies and other civil society groups.


Cambodian government officials responded with indignation. "It is not
true police are using this law to arrest and extort money from the
suspects," said Gen. Bith Kim Hong, head of the anti-trafficking police.
"We never arrest prostitutes, but rather we save them from brothels."

According to LICADHO, the sweeps resulted in the murder of three
detainees, who were beaten to death by prison guards, and the suicides
of at least five others.

IJM did not help conduct the sweeps and condemned them publicly–Stayton
even attempted to contact the local sex workers’ collective to offer his
help in investigating the allegations of abuse. He was rebuffed by
silence, however–a representative of the collective argued that the
sweeps were an unsurprising consequence of US pressure on trafficking,
in which IJM has played a strong part, and of a policy that favors
engagement with law enforcement while failing to heed the voices of
those they ostensibly protect.

Some in the human rights community remain open to dialogue with IJM and
to the possibility of positive collaboration with the police. Joe Amon
of Human Rights Watch offered a slew of possible modifications to IJM’s
work, including establishing formal mechanisms like citizens’
commissions and independent investigations to pursue complaints about
police abuses. As for the sex workers, IJM could engage in "real
dialogue with sex workers’ groups, which have their own ways of
gathering information and informing police they trust. They could also
provide legal representation for adult sex workers, particularly those
abused by police, or they could support local legal NGOs to do so." In
the absence of those safeguards, Amon felt that IJM’s strategies have
yielded mixed results at best.

It’s unclear how IJM may be addressing the potential complications of
working with such volatile partners. The organization did not respond to
repeated requests to speak on concrete strategies in the field to avoid
or counter police corruption and brutality. IJM staff did, however,
mention the protocol they had issued to local police, which advises them
on ways to shield sex workers from the media and to reassure them they
are not being arrested, and which explains techniques for conducting
raids so they do not implicate social service NGOs operating in the
area. My request to see the manual, however, resulted in no response.
Asked about the provision of legal representation for adult sex workers,
Haugen responded by noting that most of the women were undocumented and
therefore less likely to press charges against law enforcement.

For Marielle Lindstrom, weighing the balance of IJM’s work in Cambodia
is a difficult task. Formerly chief of the Asia Foundation’s
anti-trafficking project, Lindstrom was in charge of disbursing the
major USAID grant on the issue and served as main coordinator on
Cambodia’s anti-trafficking strategies, convening a task force of
government officials, ministries and more than 200 NGOs. She
acknowledges that IJM is "doing a good thing rescuing the children" and
could have a strong positive effect should its training be incorporated
into the national police academy, but she is torn about the overall
impact of the organization’s work.

"In the end," she says, "it’s the way of thinking that troubles me. Do
you want to make a difference in one person’s life, or change the
system? Many people are here because they’ve been called to do
something, they have a calmness and a conviction. They know this is
right. For me, I’m only human. I doubt myself all the time. I need to
consider different approaches. I’d much rather say that God tells me to
do this. It would be easier." Lindstrom sighs again. "Because what about
your responsibility to a fellow human being, to what they want?
Do we ever ask them? Some see proof of their faith in that one person
they rescue. That’s my concern–there’s no self-doubt. It didn’t cross
anyone’s mind to work with sex workers on the law, for example. And we
talk about the minimum standards of assistance, but victims are not
consulted in the creation of those standards."

Before I left Cambodia, I met with the secretariat of the sex workers’
collective. Three of them had been trafficked–although I didn’t ask for
details, they provided them, their stories of deception by friends and
family.

At the end of our conversation, I asked if they had any questions. They
had only one. "Sister," Preung Pany said, "we tell our stories to so
many journalists, so many people like you, but then nothing changes.
Still we are raped by the police, still there are young ones in the
brothels. There are so many people working on this–the rescuers, the
HIV people, people like you–and so much money going into this problem.
But why doesn’t anything change?"

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  • meg

    Why doesn’t anything change – indeed. Because no one really wants it to. The world is pro-whoring. Trafficking is normalized. There are seemingly a million things more important than the exploitation of women and children in a powerful worldwide industry that exists on their orifices. Even AIDS/HIV prevention efforts delude themselves into thinking that they can really get anything doen while sex trafficking exists. They think the "sex industry" is their ally? No it itself is the PROBLEM, and the ROOT CAUSE of the very specific problem they are trying their damndest to solve. And how committed and effective can these human rights groups be in serving the trafficked people when they squabble, and call eachother names? This article makes it sound as if the women themselves, even those who are trafficked in, are pro-whoring.

  • taikurd

    I have to agree with Meg especially on the point of squabbling. This article makes it very clear that IJM’s policies have mixed (or even fully negative) results, and that many organizations are already refusing to dialogue with them.
    However, the language of this article (especially where faith is discussed) seems to paint IJM as a group that is incapable of being reasoned with. The question I have is, is this sort of attitude truly wise? If IJM is in fact so short-sighted, volatile, and powerful, will they need more advisors, or should they be left to do what they feel? I am suspicious of this portrait of them as being so convinced of a particular set of instructions as God-given that they cannot perceive the complexity of the system (really, many/most people of faith practice logical reasoning), but even if I am wrong, open dialogue can only be helpful. After all, shunning an anti-trafficking organization may well convince it that it alone is truly working for the freedom of exploited women.
    Anyway, as the article briefly mentions, IJM has modified its policies in the past. Perhaps it is still possible to get along, and use our resources in a concerted and well-informed fashion–without imagining that any powerful entity cannot play some positive role. After all, without the cooperation of the government, what other means of living can the bulk of exploited and refugee rescuees hope to obtain? How can we prevent those whose birth occurred at the wrong time and place from needing to make a choice between rape/genocide, starvation, and "voluntary" sex work?