Saving Sex-Trafficking Victims

Saving Sex-Trafficking Victims

Washington, D.C.


Washington, D.C.

Noy Thrupkaew’s two-part series, “The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking” [Oct. 5 and 26], focuses on the work of the International Justice Mission (IJM). Unfortunately, the articles present almost none of the facts or views shared with her in more than twenty hours of interviews conducted with IJM senior staff in three countries. In addition, they contain numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of IJM’s work. In the interest of a fair and informed dialogue about sex trafficking, I offer the following clarifications:

§ Today virtually every credible anti-trafficking organization–including UN agencies, NGOs and responsible governments–agrees that engagement with law enforcement is the best and only sustainable way to protect victims and apprehend perpetrators of sex trafficking. Corruption within police forces should not be a reason to deny trafficking victims the enforcement of laws designed to protect them, as the article suggests; it should be a strong argument to train and build capacity (as IJM has done for hundreds of officers around the globe).

§ IJM’s aftercare protocols for sex trafficking victims are widely considered to be state-of-the-art by anti-trafficking professionals. Thrupkaew falsely suggests that IJM “abandons” victims after rescue. IJM’s in-country social workers partner with aftercare organizations on the ground to secure shelter, medical care, psychological assistance and schooling or job training for trafficking survivors.

§ IJM does not “raid” brothels and as an NGO has no authority to do so. IJM provides investigative support and, when requested by the local police, offers technical assistance on police-initiated, court-approved enforcement of national anti-trafficking laws. When possible, IJM provides social work support during such operations to ensure excellent treatment of victims and nonvictims impacted by the police intervention.

Given the scope and urgency of the issue–to rescue thousands of children and trafficked women from lives of sexual slavery and rape–it is unfortunate to see The Nation manufacturing controversy rather than mobilizing efforts or encouraging dialogue. The dedicated staff of NGOs, governments and police agencies who stand on the front lines of the battle against child sex trafficking, and the victims they serve, deserve better (interested readers, please go to

AMY E. ROTH, director, media relations
International Justice Mission

Arlington, Va.

Readers should know about a recent investigation and operation conducted in Siem Reap, Cambodia, by the local police and IJM. This is the latest in IJM’s casework in Asia, which has secured freedom and aftercare for more than 1,000 minor girls and trafficked adult women, the arrest of more than 500 suspects and convictions of more than 130 perpetrators.

In September an IJM operative received information about a karaoke bar in Siem Reap, where managers sequestered about a dozen girls for sexual exploitation by customers. Most of the girls were under 18, the youngest 14. IJM investigators contacted the provincial Cambodian Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police (AHTJP), and between October 2 and 4 IJM investigators made several visits to the bar, posing as customers to gain access to the youngest girls and secure evidence of their age and circumstances. They provided this to the AHTJP, which prepared reports for the local prosecutor, who then issued warrants. On October 5 an operation was conducted that resulted in the rescue of twelve victims and the arrest of the brothel owner. The following morning, another suspect was arrested in a nearby city.

IJM aftercare staff, who accompanied the victims during their police interviews, learned that many of the victims were severely beaten regularly; some had scars to prove it. Photos show a small, windowless, dirty “prison” where the girls were kept and prohibited from leaving. The girls requested placement in aftercare facilities, where they receive high-quality medical and psychological care, schooling and job training.

IJM, the Obama administration and UN agencies regard law enforcement to remove children from brothels and apprehend those who sell and rape them to be as indispensable for countries like Cambodia as it is for the United States.

Vice president, government relations
International Justice Mission


I was interviewed by Noy Thrupkaew, who claims she made “numerous attempts to find and speak with ‘the one’ rescued in an IJM intervention,” though she never made such a request of me. Had Thrupkaew asked, she could have spoken with, among many others, Eliza, an IJM client rescued by the Philippine National Police in an operation supported by IJM social workers, investigators and lawyers.

Eliza recently wrote this:

“When I was a child, I had one simple dream: to live a happy and decent life with my family. But life seemed so unkind to me. My mother left me to my father when I was only 9 months old. Growing up, my father hurt me physically and emotionally so I ran away. I ended up working in a bar.

“At the age of 14, I earned my own money. I worked to please the sexual desires of my customers. After months of working, I decided to quit. I thought things would change, but soon after, I was raped by four men.

“In 2006, IJM, with the police, came to the place where I was working. They rescued me…and brought me to a government shelter for abused and exploited girls.

“I always thought that to earn a living to support myself and my family, I needed to sell my body and my soul. IJM’s support changed all that. I am now finishing school and engaging in small businesses with livelihood assistance from IJM. I never dreamt this to ever be possible. I am just so glad that it is.”

Director, Manila field office
International Justice Mission

Thrupkaew Replies

New York City

One of the central preoccupations behind my pieces was not whether law enforcement should be a part of counter-trafficking work–although that question has vital implications for understanding how rhetoric and policy on this issue have been constructed–but rather how. Police corruption presents a serious challenge to those who work in counter-trafficking, as do punitive laws on migration, prostitution and labor; inadequate or insufficient aftercare facilities and psychological counseling services; and a dearth of economic and educational opportunities for marginalized or impoverished groups. But what severely exacerbates all these challenges to counter-trafficking initiatives are the ways voluntary sex workers and trafficking victims have been denied participation in shaping policies ostensibly meant to help them, and the longstanding history of abuse they have faced at the hands of those charged with protecting and serving them.

Training and capacity-building are insufficient. Establishing independent mechanisms to investigate police brutality and corruption; providing legal representation for trafficking victims and consenting sex workers; and involving them in creating aftercare services, law-enforcement training, and laws and policy on trafficking–among numerous possible modifications–would be vital steps forward for counter-trafficking work.

I do not doubt that IJM has had important successes, helped trafficking victims and made commendable improvements in its work, and I took care to seek out and provide evidence of such whenever I found it. However, I’m less certain of the organization’s responses to its critics. Human-rights advocates, trafficking victims and voluntary sex workers have pointed out the problems–deportation, police brutality and disruptions of HIV-education services–that have occurred with intervention-style counter-trafficking work, as documented in reports by Empower Thailand, the Global Alliance for Traffic in Women, the Open Society Institute and USAID, among others. These reports do not present false controversy; rather, they shed light on very real and pressing problems that deserve the attention of an organization with justice at the heart of its mission.



Editorial glitches caused two errors to appear in the opening paragraph of Jeremy Scahill’s “The ACORN Standard” [Nov. 2].

§ The correct name of the nonpartisan group is Project on Government Oversight.

§ Government contractors paid (not were paid) $26 billion in fines.

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