About 10 to 15 years ago, when people heard about the horrors of child trafficking and felt compelled to do something to help fight it, it was not uncommon to respond by staging rescues. There were non-profit organizations that would hear about trafficking in brothels and would–whether with local law enforcement support or not–stage operations to break into the brothels and rescue the victims. Or there were individuals, like NY Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who co-wrote an enormously influential book about violence against women and articles about trafficking, who went to the extent of finding girls who had been trafficked and paying for their freedom.
These kinds of rescues were very much fueled by conceptions of superheroes going in to rescue little girls. What’s more, when done by foreigners operating uninvited, it cause tensions with the local people. Time and experience began to reveal how the assumptions fueling these rescues were marked by a naive, limited, and problematic view of how to engage in the fight against trafficking.
The Problems With the Early Approaches to Rescues
There are a host of issues with how things were done in the beginning. First, it’s critical that raids & rescues, if done, should be done in concert with local law enforcement to a) do a proper investigation to determine whether it’s actually victims getting swept up in the raid, b) not break any other laws in the process, and c) ensure it’s done in a way to gather evidence that will actually secure a prosecution and consequences for the traffickers. This requires extensive knowledge about local laws to be done properly. Done properly, it’s also more sustainable: instead of relying on one-off vigilante heroes coming in randomly, communities began to invest in local forces, embedded within the culture, to strengthen more holistic responses to trafficking.
Second, practices like buying “sex slaves” to purchase their freedom might accomplish their freedom if you’re lucky (though even this is fraught with obstacles, which we’ll discuss next), but it still put money in the hands of traffickers, who would then find another victim to traffick. This only perpetuated the cycle.
Finally, some of these early approaches did not even consider what would happen after the rescue. They assumed victims would go back home to live happily ever after. They did not foresee the problem of shame and how survivors may be shunned from their communities and homes, and they grossly underestimated how much support survivors need to overcome the trauma, recover from any drug addictions, and build a life that protects them from whatever led them to be vulnerable to trafficking in the first place.
This list doesn’t even begin to address the other challenges, from needing help with language translation for victims who’d been trafficked internationally to problems occurring when local governments weren’t equipped to handle victims, not to mention where to house them or how to handle repatriation to home countries….This article in The Nation and this one in Foreign Policy help recount some of the obstacles organizations faced and how they had to adjust over time.
“IJM has tweaked its approach over time. ‘It’s not just a … drop-in to get a couple of children out of a brothel and then leave. We did that in the early days,’ Burkhalter said in an interview with Foreign Policy. IJM now sets up offices in countries where it works—it recently opened one in the Dominican Republic—and places greater emphasis on training police and building the capacity of judicial and social-service systems. ‘We want to walk away from the image of the Western superhero going into places of darkness to rescue … the little girl,’ says Pablo Villeda, IJM’s vice president of regional operations for Latin America.” (Source: Foreign Policy)
Thankfully, approaches to rescues have evolved over time, with greater awareness of the complexities and nuances of trafficking processes. Now, it’s generally understood that raid and rescues should always be done in full concert and cooperation with local law enforcement–and likewise, law enforcement acts best in concert with social workers who can attend to the various needs of survivors that lay beyond the scope of law enforcement. It’s also generally understood that a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach must be taken, and that at every step of the way, from rescue to investigation & case preparation to prosecution, victim-survivor needs and wishes should be taken into account, in a culturally sensitive way, to prevent retraumatization as much as possible. Best practices look less like individual heroes and more like deep partnerships between counselors, legal experts, law enforcement, prosecutors and survivors, among others, working collectively to pursue justice.