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Beyond Rescue | The Nation

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Beyond Rescue

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For Project Lantern, IJM made a number of notable improvements, conducting the organization's first official baseline study to assess pre-existing levels of trafficking. It has also been working to integrate trafficking victims' families and economic needs into aftercare. The organization reached out to social-service groups like the Cebu City Health Department, which conducts HIV-screening for sex workers, and even set up a meeting with an association of brothel owners in order to explain the anti-trafficking law to them. And it also seems to be conducting more tightly focused stings--in which pimps or traffickers bring minors to hotel rooms or other off-site locations--rather than conducting large, wholesale raids.

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.

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?"

"It's good to hear about these improvements," said Françoise Girard, director of the Open Society Institute's Public Health Program. Girard had met with IJM's president, Gary Haugen, in 2007 to discuss her concerns about the group's counter-trafficking work. "But really, shouldn't they have been doing all these things before? They didn't have baseline information [about] whether their actions had any effect on numbers of trafficked women after doing this work for all these years?"

"There's real tension in their model," she continued. "Are we here to rescue individual girls, or test the theory about how the criminal justice system could create a disincentive for trafficking? When I pressed them about which to choose, they went with individual girls. There's always a reason to raid in that case--and we know what kinds of problems with deportation, detention and brutality the raids can bring."

IJM has also struggled with state corruption, including bribes, extortion and sexual coercion or complicity on the part of the police. The group won a landmark case this past September against a police officer for trafficking minors into the sex industry--the first conviction of a public officer for this crime in the Philippines. But the problems remain deeply entrenched. In 2006, before the advent of Project Lantern, the Cebu City government passed an ordinance that police were not allowed to have sexual intercourse with suspected trafficking victims when performing stings. "That was very bad," said police inspector Enrique Lacerna. "One police officer was caught on CCTV during a raid. Yes, having sex with the trafficking victim during the sting."

Despite the ordinance, another policeman confirmed that law enforcement agents still insisted on the performance of sexual services when conducting anti-trafficking raids. Nervous sweat beading his brow, he also asserted that a number of men in his unit received 10,000 pesos per month for protecting brothels and tipping off owners in the case of an impending raid. Considering that the starting monthly salary of a police officer was 9,500 pesos, it was no small haul. Fearing reprisals from other police officers, he spoke on condition of anonymity, as did a government official who indicated that "there is a concern among partners in the region about the involvement of police in trafficking, and a concern that they may use the anti-trafficking campaign to exert pressure on brothel owners for their personal benefit." The official declined to speak about specific incidents.

As in Cambodia and Thailand, some IJM rescuees did not want to stay rescued. At IJM's site in Cebu, young women and girls removed an air conditioner and jumped from the second floor of HerSpace, a processing center that IJM built, some incurring injuries. Others walked out of another center, which was undergoing construction to increase security. And still another group attempted to burn down a facility--luckily, no one was injured.

In the Philippines, I made numerous attempts to find and speak with "the one" rescued in an IJM intervention, as I had in Thailand and in Cambodia. The closest I came in any of the countries was a 19-year-old woman who had returned to prostitution after being caught in a 2008 IJM-initiated raid and escaping from Cebu's Department of Social Welfare and Development processing center. But, traumatized by the raid-and-rescue experience, she refused to speak to me in person, and only asked if I was from an NGO like IJM.

"She says she will never talk to anyone from an NGO ever again," my translator relayed, "if that is what they do."

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