Reporting From the Field
I recently had the privilege of attending a conference where one of our partner organizations, Thai law enforcement, representatives from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and staffers of U.S. Congressional members committed to fighting trafficking all participated. In the meeting, law enforcement officials briefed the Congressional staffers on their most recent counter-trafficking efforts and they shared their successes in investigating and prosecuting cases of known traffickers, with a shared determination to bringing traffickers to justice both in Thailand and in the traffickers’ home countries. The collaboration is ground-breaking, and it appears to be effective. What initially struck me, however, was how much talk was devoted to capturing and prosecuting pedophiles.
I find it very heartening that trafficking is now framed as a security threat and a threat to U.S. interests, as it is symptomatic of a system in which corruption is endemic, it contributes to the breakdown of the rule of law, and it even appears to be linked to terrorism, which explains why it falls under HSI’s purview. From the TIP Report to awareness-raising campaigns to training members of other industries (such as the transportation industry and first responders) to recognize potential victims, Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State have made great strides in tackling the problem and we are very grateful for and appreciative of their efforts.
But where do pedophiles fit in the larger picture of trafficking? While clearly it is important to stop child exploitation wherever it exists, does chasing pedophiles fit more under the purview of local law enforcement or does it really hit at the heart of trafficking? Does chasing pedophiles merely pad the number of cases and have the appearance of making a contribution to ending trafficking writ large? Or are pedophiles simply the low-hanging fruit of counter-trafficking efforts?
As I am not privy to the details of these investigations, I don’t want to speculate on whether the pedophiles they have caught are also traffickers, selling children to others as well as exploiting them for their own use, let alone whether pedophile, which is a clinical diagnosis, is even the correct term for these child abusers who may or may not have been professionally diagnosed. Nor do I wish to criticize law enforcement efforts from my limited vantage point. It may be true that HSI collaborates only on cases that clearly fit the trafficking mold, while other agencies devote their resources to other kinds of child exploitation. These distinctions weren’t clearly expressed in the meeting. I merely raise the question because, as an NGO committed to preventing trafficking, I believe we have a stake in trying to find out exactly how trafficking happens, whether and how the nature of the beast is shifting, and whether law enforcement is chipping at the fringes, or striking an effective blow.
The fact that I, as someone who has been working in the field for several years, am raising these questions serves to illustrate the murky and complex nature of trafficking, which is rife with presumptions and stereotypes that don’t always match reality. Law enforcement officials might have good cause to focus on pedophiles, but the lack of clarity on this topic illustrates three reasons why trafficking is such a complicated phenomenon, and why it’s often difficult to coordinate prevention and intervention efforts. These three factors are as follows:
There is no heart of trafficking. The question of whether chasing pedophiles gets to the heart of trafficking is a loaded one–it presumes there actually is a heart of trafficking. Globally, exploitation is rampant because it is both profitable and easy to hide. It attracts anyone willing to use a child to make a buck; it’s not just the stereotypical mafia-run enterprise you see on TV. It’s also families selling their own relatives, it’s friends encouraging other friends to join them in making quick money, it’s children offering themselves as their only escape from something they consider worse, it’s mom and pop operations selling fruit in the front of their store and children in a locked room at the back. More and more now, it is going online, where it can be even easier to hide. There is no head of the serpent to cut off, no heart to strike. If it is true that individuals working alone contribute just as much as, if not more than, traditional organized crime, then perhaps law enforcement’s only hope is to catch enough criminals that it sends a message to others that, finally, exploitation is no longer worth the risk.
Communication is vital, and difficult. While law enforcement is not beholden to NGOs nor responsible for issuing regular progress reports, having better clarity about the nature of the problem would help foster inter-agency collaboration. Just as it would be much simpler if traffickers were a network with a centralized head at the top, so too would counter-trafficking efforts be more efficient and effective if those working in this space operated as a network in concert with each other. But that is not how it works at this time. Efforts are being made to move in this direction, but not nearly enough. Law enforcement efforts are, to some extent, piecemeal, and so are anti-trafficking efforts–especially where we work. There are no clear channels of communication, and the protection of privacy and personal safety means many actors must work with some degree of secrecy. This means each organization tends to work in their limited domains and tries to fight the problem where they see it. For us, the kids we see are most vulnerable to the lure of selling themselves and being encouraged (though not exactly forced) by people they trust to sell themselves. But if law enforcement sees the problem as primarily driven by pedophiles seducing and coercing children, then there is a clear disconnect between prevention and intervention efforts. We need to find ways to advance greater communication between law enforcement and the NGOs that wish to help. If law enforcement has real cause to be concerned about pedophiles as traffickers, then we need better communication so we are not just shooting in the dark, or worse, working at cross purposes.
We need systemic responses. Aside from the lack of centralized networks, another major reason we tend to work in piecemeal is that the causes of exploitation are so vast, and the willingness of governments and civil society to combat it does not match the scale of the problem. Until we can hit a striking blow to the causes of exploitation, NGO and law enforcement efforts will constantly be playing a game of catch up. Until we as a global society really investigate the tough questions about what causes demand (including psychological and emotional needs) and can provide healthier alternatives, there will always be someone there to supply. Until we can effectively deal with poverty, displacement, racism, undocumented peoples, corruption, and marginalization, we will always be putting people in places of vulnerability and stripping them of options. This is how we as a global community are complicit. If we continue to say these problems are not our problems, then we continue to contribute to the problem of trafficking.
Unless we deal with the systems that perpetuate exploitation, making it so easy and lucrative, we’ll be stuck chasing individual traffickers and pedophiles. Until then, that may be the best and the most we can ask of law enforcement.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Blog Editor for The SOLD Project. After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.