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The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking | The Nation

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The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking

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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.

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.

About the Author

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

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

"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."

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