The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking
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."