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The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking | The Nation

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The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking

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AVENGING ANGELS

About the Author

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

Also by the Author

The campaign against forced prostitution works when it addresses victims' needs.

The second part of Noy Thrupkaew's report appears in the October 26 issue. The November 16 issue features a letters exchange about these articles.

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

This article is the first part of a two-part series. The next installment will explore alternative approaches to addressing the problem of trafficking for the purposes of forced prostitution.   --The Editors

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.

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