PHONM PENH, CAMBODIA – A police officer spoke to a small band of young women and teenage girls. It was after midnight. Just a few hours earlier, General Sun Ro had led his team of police and IJM support staff to rescue these young women from a brothel where they had been sold and exploited for sex.
"You are now no longer oppressed," General Sun Ro began, urging the young women to take advantage of the opportunities, vocational training programs and aftercare services available to them as sex trafficking survivors. He encouraged them to think and dream about their life in a new way. He closed with these words: "You are young and your future is waiting for you."
Bringing light to darkness
Over the past decade, IJM has documented a considerable decrease in the availability of girls offered for sex in brothels in the Cambodian cities where we have been at work. When IJM began operations in Cambodia in 2003, girls as young as 5 were openly on display and sold to men for sex. As Cambodian law enforcement began rescuing girls, arresting traffickers and closing down brothels, the game started to change. The ages of the girls in brothels have risen and IJM is finding fewer and fewer minors for sale. "It has become too risky for most traffickers to keep offering underage girls for sex in commercial establishments in Phnom Penh," explains IJM Cambodia Director Christa Hayden Sharpe.
Earlier this year, IJM started investigating a few brothels lining a street in Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh. They discovered that underage girls who appeared to be 16- or 17-years-old were being sold in the brothels and presented evidence to the anti-trafficking police. General Sun Ro assembled a team of police from the Cambodian National Police's anti-trafficking police unit – many of whom were trained by IJM Cambodia – and coordinated the complex operation with IJM.
A new future begins
It was dark when the anti-trafficking police team arrived on the street on April 24, 2013. Because there were three brothels, the police and IJM spread out to provide surveillance and enter the adjacent buildings simultaneously. The police officers worked quickly to secure the premises, gather evidence and arrest suspects.
IJM social workers were also standing by to provide support to the girls and women. At first they did not understand what was happening. Like many sex trafficking survivors, they were very quiet and seemed unsure of who to trust. But by the time they reached the police station, they started to open up about their time in the brothel. Two of the girls quickly shared their age – both said they were 17 years old – and expressed their desire to receive help and aftercare. One of the girls' older sisters, in her early 20s, also said she would like to stay with her sister and receive aftercare.
The police officers were calm and patient as they interviewed the girls, and IJM social worker Kakada Kim said she was impressed by how kindly and professionally the officers treated the survivors. The clear concern and professionalism shown by the police to the trafficking survivors reflected the profound change that IJM has observed in the national anti-trafficking police force over the past ten years. Kakada said the police "made sure to keep the girls informed. So, the police stated to the girls: 'do not be worried – social workers will be with you and support you during this time. We are here to help you and assure you that you have not done anything wrong.'"
IJM social workers sat with the young women through police interviews and explained to them what would happen next. The four girls assessed to be minors, as well as one of their older sisters, would go to a temporary shelter for trafficking survivors so they could get the critical care and counseling they needed. Those older than 18 could choose to go to a different shelter to learn about vocational opportunities and options for a safe future. The first few days and weeks after rescue are critical, and IJM social worker Kakada explains: "We have amazing partners in Phnom Penh that provide critical assistance to trafficking survivors in their first weeks of freedom."
As the Phnom Penh court moves forward with their case against the two suspects who have been charged with trafficking, IJM's legal team will represent the survivors in the trial and monitor the long process of justice. And the brothels where the girls were once exploited are now closed – the police locked the doors for good that very same night.