Beyond Rescue | The Nation


Beyond Rescue

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About the Author

Noy Thrupkaew
Noy Thrupkaew is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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Do brothel raids help trafficking victims escape abuse, or skirt the reality that makes recovery so difficult for the "rescued?"

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
A letters exchange about Noy Thrupkaew's two-part report is featured in the November 16 issue.

This is the second installment of a two-part series. The first part, "The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking," was published in the October 5 issue.   --The Editors

Drifting down Junquera Street after nightfall with your car doors unlocked is an unwise proposition. Pimps dart out from street corners and pound on the windows of passing cars--sometimes they are so eager to provide the services of their "girls" that they pry open car doors to make a more direct appeal. Visitors who make it out of the car unscathed face another gantlet at the main entrance of Kamagayan, one of the main red-light districts in Cebu City, the Philippines. Descend past the jostling throng and the howling of the karaoke bars, and the pathway wends toward brothels and alleyways strung with dim red lights, where customers come to find the underage prostitutes that Kamagayan is notorious for providing--along with drugs and gambling opportunities. Out of plain sight, in an alleyway, is a cluster of girls with puppyish, knobby knees. Their garish makeup stands out like neon on their young faces, adding to Kamagayan's air of desperate pageantry.

Like Cambodia and Thailand, the Philippines suffers from a significant problem with child sex exploitation. But the Philippines provides more fertile ground for US work on anti-trafficking--the majority-Catholic country is more in ideological harmony with the abolitionist attitudes that hold sway in Washington. As Jean Enriquez, executive director of the Coalition Against the Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific, asserted, "All prostitution is forced rape"--an idea that has great ideological and political resonance in the Philippines. Enriquez's group is one of the main anti-trafficking organizers in the Philippines and a beneficiary of US government funds on the issue; the organization also helped draft the Philippines' anti-trafficking legislation.

In the Philippines the International Justice Mission found a hospitable home for its work. IJM draws on the services of evangelical lawyers, law-enforcement officers and social workers, who enlist local counterparts and police to combat human rights abuses in the developing world. In the Philippines, as in India, Cambodia and, in the past, Thailand, IJM conducts "brothel raids"--its most controversial and best-known work--by providing evidence of trafficking to local police, collaborating on "interventions" to remove victims from the establishments and working to ensure the arrest and prosecution of their abusers.

For IJM, the lack of highly vocal sex-worker organizations or HIV NGOs--the traditional critics of IJM's work--has meant a smoother reception for the group's work in the Philippines. The organization has also been able to avoid the considerable friction that has resulted in other countries from the deportation of women netted in raids--most of the trafficking that occurs within the Philippines concerns domestic movement. And the organization has found willing government partners and a network of shelters run by Christian organizations. One aftercare shelter in partnership with IJM, Happy Horizons, offers "daily, Bible-based counseling to restore the self-esteem and confidence that comes with the realization that one is a precious, beloved child of God.... When the restoration process is completed, children rescued from the sex trade in Cebu City will be able to lead happy, productive Christian lives."

IJM has had some notable successes in the Philippines--where it has a presence in Manila, Cebu and its new State Department-funded office in Samar--particularly in the realm of prosecutions. One case involved a shyly smiling young woman who identified herself as Cris, in tribute to the social worker who had counseled her. Cris and her friends were deceived by one of the friends' relatives. Promised jobs as waitresses, they had traveled with her to Batangas, where they were apprehended en route by police trained by the Visayan Forum, an organization that works on domestic labor abuses and trafficking prevention. IJM won the case against Cris's trafficker in 2008.

IJM's office in Cebu expanded upon the organization's previous work--perhaps partially because of input from its influential funder. Supported by a $5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Project Lantern, based in the Cebu office, was designed to create a replicable model of countertrafficking work. An additional benefit, IJM claimed, would be a reduction in HIV infection rates--rescue would remove trafficking victims from potential infection, and successful prosecution of traffickers would reduce overall numbers of potential victims. But questions abound about the counter-trafficking approach embodied by Project Lantern and whether it is, in fact, a model that ought to be replicated.

According to the grantmaker who signed off on the Gates funding, Project Lantern was an attempt to create harmony between IJM's criminal-justice approach and one that was more centered on community development and women's empowerment. "We weren't necessarily encouraging [IJM] to do anything but what their model does," says Helene Gayle, former director of the Gates HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program and current president/CEO of Care USA. "But we wanted to see...is there a way of pulling them into the family?"

In Project Lantern, IJM has refined its techniques, but problems with police corruption and insufficient economic alternatives to prostitution persist--problems that illustrate the ways that IJM's model may be insufficient to overcome systemic issues, including spotty "aftercare" infrastructure. IJM's raids overwhelmed the shelter and social-services capacity of Cebu, for example. In addition, a number of the women and girls who could be housed at the government centers would stage risky escapes, illustrating the failure of post-raid services to ameliorate immediate economic and familial pressures and address the ways rescue could feel like a form of detention, according to human rights critics. Less drastic and more family-focused interventions, critics argued, would be a more effective way to help minors out of the commercial sex industry.

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