A False Controversy: Law Enforcement and the Sexual Exploitation of Children and Trafficked Women

In theory, everyone – except for pedophiles, brothel owners, and pimps – agrees that children must not be in the sex industry and that those who prey on them should be prosecuted and punished. Virtually every country in the world has adopted national laws prohibiting the commercial sexual exploitation of children. International law is clear on this point, as well. The International Convention on the Rights of the Child requires States Parties to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, and prevent sex trafficking, pornography, and other unlawful sexual practices.

When governments – and NGOs working with them – take action to extract children from commercial sex venues, common ground on protecting children from abuse can quickly erode with concerns about the efficacy of police intervention, the possibility of collateral harm to consenting adult sex workers or a decrease in access to HIV-prevention and related health services. At IJM, throughout more than 10 years of frontline experience in combating child sexual exploitation in developing countries around the world, we found that opposition to the rescue of children in forced prostitution almost invariably stems from the following misperceptions:

Misperception: "Police operations do more harm than good."

Some sex worker rights advocates oppose law enforcement in brothel areas for any purpose, including the rescue of minors, because they fear an adverse impact on non-trafficked adults. That is a well-founded fear, given the propensity of local police in many countries around the world to engage in physical violence, theft, shake-downs, bribes and protection rackets that not only facilitate trafficking in children and forced adults, but are a source of constant misery and fear for poor and vulnerable adult women in the brothels, whether or not they have been trafficked.

In Cambodia, for example, Women’s Network Unity (WNU), a sex worker organization, reported that police were arresting and abusing women in prostitution under the auspices of a new anti-trafficking law in June 2008. IJM Cambodia condemned the abuses and met with senior law enforcement officials to discuss the reports. As IJM’s Patrick Stayton stated publicly, “This misconduct is a grave human rights offense and damages the development of a public justice system that serves those who need and deserve protection against traffickers, pedophiles and other perpetrators of violent abuse.”

In several red-light areas where sex workers are organized or unionized, they have reached agreement with local law enforcement to simply stay away from the brothels. As a leading advocate for sex worker rights stated to IJM, “We have secured a degree of protection for sex workers by keeping police at bay. The last thing we want is for some NGO to invite them back in.”

Notwithstanding this reality, IJM has found many police officers of courage and good will who have carried out their legitimate duties to secure hundreds of children and apprehend perpetrators without committing any abuse, arrest or exploitation of consenting, adult sex workers. Indeed, some police mistreatment of sex workers stems from misperceptions or lack of awareness of relevant laws and appropriate procedures; in such cases, there is a clear benefit to training police on these issues and other best practices in victim care, the role of social workers, suspect detainment, etc. IJM has trained hundreds of officers around the world on these topics. IJM investigators, lawyers, and social workers train and advise police to direct their actions only towards minors, trafficked adults, and the perpetrators of crimes against them, and to not interfere with the consenting adult sex workers who are commingled in the brothels. In almost all cases we are successful.

Misperception: "Law enforcement drives child sexual exploitation underground."

Some critics object to law enforcement against child prostitution on the grounds that police intervention and rescues alone do nothing but “drive the trade underground.” The thinking goes that it is better for children in the commercial sex industry to be “above ground,” and thus able to receive health and HIV prevention services, than “underground,” where it is assumed they would not have access to such services.

IJM agrees that successful operations will compel the criminals to alter their methodology, which will likely include moving “underground.” That is why investigations leading to police intervention must also be followed up with prosecution and imprisonment of the perpetrators. It is to be expected that with any significant law enforcement action, the criminal activity will morph and seek to move around law enforcement. In that sense, murder has moved underground in the developed world because it cannot be committed openly in broad daylight without fear of accountability and prosecution. It is always an imperative of law enforcement to stay one step ahead of this change in tactics by criminals. Law enforcement must respond by changing its method and being offensive rather than reactive to the crime.

IJM has found in Cambodia and elsewhere that when law enforcement activities cause brothel owners, pimps and traffickers to hide children from the general public, increase layers of security, or limit their customers to only those whom they know, the profit from the exploitation of those children sharply decreases. When law enforcement results in criminal prosecution and prison sentences, the incentive to offer minor children for sexual exploitation is further diminished. IJM has seen that even a handful of prosecutions of brothel owners, pimps and traffickers results in a sharp drop in the availability of minor children in the sex industry "above-ground" or "underground."

Misperception: "Police raids on brothels result in diminished access for AIDS prevention service organizations and other health workers, and an increase in HIV and other STIs among non-trafficked, adult sex workers."

Many opponents of law enforcement operations to remove children from commercial sex venues base their objection on this concern for health worker access to brothels.

A number of groups criticized IJM’s collaboration with Cambodian police to rescue young children from prostitution in Svay Pak, a brothel area outside of Phnom Penh, in 2003. Sex worker advocates have told IJM that HIV prevention service providers working in Svay Pak at the time experienced difficulties maintaining their services because brothel owners responded to the presence of police in the area by retaliating against NGOs, and limiting their access to adults.

Rescues and arrests will almost certainly result in greater caution by the pimps and brothel keepers that abuse the children – especially in places like Svay Pak where previously they acted with near complete impunity because they had nothing to fear and no reason for caution. All agree that there must be a clear distinction between NGOs that provide health care to voluntary adult sex workers and those that seek to eradicate the commercial sexual exploitation and torture of children and trafficked women. But we must also agree that the 9-year-old who is subjected to daily sexual exploitation- or the woman trafficked against her will -suffers not primarily because they lack knowledge of sexual health or access to health care services. In fact, these victims suffer because they are repeated victims of gross human rights abuses with long-term physical, mental and emotional repercussions – and these victims are often the most vulnerable, in a situation where they are unable to dictate the terms of their sexual exploitation such as insisting that customers use condoms. The solution is to remove these individuals from abuse and to provide swift criminal penalties for their abusers – so that other 9-year-olds or trafficked adults will not be brought into the trade.

The international human rights group Human Rights Watch has articulated this view forcefully, warning against the trade off of human rights protection of trafficked women and girls for health worker access. In its seminal report on the trafficking of Burmese women and girls into Thailand, the organization stated: "...until the Burmese women and girls are freed from sexual bondage, the government's large-scale condom distribution campaigns are of no help to them. Condoms are irrelevant where no capacity to negotiate sex exists. For condoms to aid in the prevention of HIV transmission, they must be used during every act of intercourse. In addition, the women and girls have to be able to negotiate the number of customers accepted each day. Otherwise, the use of condoms could heighten the probability of HIV infection. When girls are forced to have sex with many customers each day, condom use often leads to friction sores which may facilitate viral transmission."1

Furthermore, there is neither data nor even persuasive anecdotes to corroborate the claim that securing the safety of trafficked women and girls is disadvantageous to health providers and consenting sex workers. On the contrary, the fact that the Cambodian authorities themselves have actively promoted condom use throughout the commercial sex industry in Phnom Penh from 1999 to the present and made significant inroads against HIV there suggests that their presence encourages, not discourages, sex workers’ access to prevention services.

UNAIDS praises the Cambodian Government’s 100% Condom Campaign as having caused a significant decline of incidence and prevalence among brothel-based sex workers and their clients, where reported correct and consistent condom use is over 90%.2 These gains have occurred during the period that IJM worked with Cambodian police to secure the release of 277 victims of sex trafficking and the conviction of 70 perpetrators of child sexual exploitation/trafficking.

Public health proponents who insist that the only way to deliver health services to consenting sex workers are through brothel-based programs are confusing the familiar with the necessary. When the Government of Cambodia began closing brothels wholesale in 2008, Marielle Lindstrom of The Asia Foundation was quoted as saying, "new ways of locating and reaching out to sex workers need to be found in the public health sector." One alternative that has been effective in the Philippines is for public health services to be made available through clinics. As a consequence, conflict between public health NGOs and Filipino law enforcement is rare because health care for sex workers is based outside the brothels. Moreover, clinics provide strong incentives such as free services and health cards verifying regular checkups.

From IJM’s perspective, there are no circumstances in which children may be held hostage within brothels so that adult sex workers can receive HIV prevention services there. If the work of NGO service providers is disrupted by brothel owners and pimps retaliating against them for police removing children from their midst, then the criticism should fall squarely where it belongs: on the unscrupulous and exploitive criminals who sell the bodies of women and children — not on the police who enforce laws to prevent the sale of minor girls for sex.

Misperception: "Rescued trafficking victims return to the brothels."

When IJM provides undercover information to local authorities, the only adults we identify for rescue are those who have identified themselves as trafficking victims and asked for help. But sexually exploited children are in every case trafficking victims, whether they “consented” to commercial sexual acts or not. Some children strongly resist being removed from prostitution and some do indeed return to the commercial sex trade. This fact should in no way justify leaving children in brothels. It is widely understood by experts in child sexual abuse that the psychological consequences of rape and/or prostitution on children’s mental and physical health are profound. Children in prostitution, like the children of sexually abusive parents, frequently identify with those who victimize them. Nonetheless, law-abiding societies do not allow children to make their own choices in such circumstances.

In addition, victims of sex trafficking are also vulnerable to being re-trafficked by those who exploited them in the first place or others seeking to take advantage of a trauma victim’s vulnerability. IJM is familiar with cases in which parents and traffickers who sold children attempted – and sometimes succeeded – in getting them back. For these reasons, children released or removed from prostitution must be carefully protected from re-trafficking and be provided with aftercare including appropriate mental and physical health care, and assistance in developing their potential for economic self-sufficiency. As a result of increased government and NGO efforts, such aftercare services are increasingly available in areas where high rates of commercial sexual exploitation of children persist.

Misperception: "Police arrest consenting adults who do not wish to be rescued."

It is true that unscrupulous, corrupt, and brutal police engage in fake operations, rounding up sex workers and running them into the police station for hours or days. Such activities, however, have nothing to do with legitimate enforcement of national laws prohibiting child prostitution and adult trafficking, and much more to do with soliciting bribes, kickbacks, and pay-offs by pimps and brothel owners. In effective and professional police operations, minor and trafficked victims and perpetrators are secured without harm to non-trafficked adult sex workers. IJM has protocols that we introduce to local law enforcement with whom we work in the field that address the appropriate treatment of non-trafficked adults co-mingled in the brothel with children. We encourage professional adherence to this standard both in training and in the operations we assist.

Misperception: "Sex worker unions are a better alternative for protection than law enforcement."

Some human rights and health advocates have suggested that sex worker unions are a preferable alternative to official law enforcement as a means of eradicating sexual exploitation of children or trafficked adults. IJM has had positive conversations with members of sex worker unions in which they have described their own efforts to quietly remove minor children from their midst. While we welcome such activity, it is clear from the large number of young girls being offered to customers in broad daylight on the streets of sex worker union-organized red-light neighborhoods that this approach, alone, is not sufficient to eradicate the trade in under-age girls.

In IJM’s experience of investigating hundreds of individual cases of sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation, we have found that traffickers and brothel owners do not willingly relinquish the young girls who are their biggest financial assets. Quiet, behind-the-scene efforts by service providers or sex worker unions to slip minors out of brothels can provide relief for small numbers of individual victims, but this approach does nothing to deter brothel owners and traffickers from simply replacing the child with another. We know of no way to obtain physical relief for minors and trafficked adults and collect the evidence necessary to apprehend and prosecute perpetrators other than to request intervention by the authorities.3

Moreover, banning police altogether from organized red-light districts or carefully controlling their access may protect sex workers from abuses by police, but it limits the prospect of protecting trafficking victims and rescuing children and slaves from exploitation by perpetrators other than the police – namely the traffickers, pimps, customers and mamasans. And it virtually eliminates the possibility of perpetrator accountability. We know of no occasion in which any sex worker union claimed responsibility for bringing a single perpetrator to justice.

Misperception: "Organized sex worker unions are opposed to law enforcement."

While some sex worker unions are strongly opposed to law enforcement on behalf of minors, other sex worker organizations actively solicit the assistance of law enforcement on behalf of underage girls in their midst. IJM recently received a case referral from a member of a Latin American sex worker union, soliciting our assistance in addressing the exploitation of minor girls.

The 2005 European sex worker manifesto, signed by 120 sex workers from 26 countries includes the following demand: "In order to make sex work safe for all we demand that criminal laws be enforced against fraud, coercion, child sexual abuse, child labour, rape and murder within the sex industry."4

Conclusion: Much of the criticism of law enforcement efforts to remove minors from the commercial sex industry is based on the fear, not the reality, of collateral harm that could be done to adults willingly working in the field.

IJM’s operations in six of our 14 overseas offices are focused on securing for children and trafficked women the right to be free from commercial sexual exploitation. In so doing, we are committed to do no harm to non-trafficked or willing adults in the sex industry, and we vociferously promote that view consistently with the local authorities with whom we work. Based on years of experience in the field, we are convinced that long-term protection of children and trafficked adults from sexual exploitation can only be secured on the foundation of a functioning public justice system – which manifests itself in properly trained, sufficiently equipped, well-informed and empowered local law enforcement.

It is not only possible, but absolutely essential, that the rights and needs of adult sex workers are not pitted against those of exploited children and trafficked women. NGOs representing the varying needs of our respective constituents must stay in informed and transparent dialogue with one another so we may work together to achieve the very worthy goal of protecting and empowering those we serve.

Setting the Record Straight...

The September 17 and October 26, 2009, editions of The Nation Magazine included articles by freelance writer Noy Thrupkaew which addressed the issue of child sexual exploitation. The first, entitled “The Crusade against Sex Trafficking,” focused on IJM’s early efforts, dating as far back as 2003, to combat the issue in Southeast Asia. The writer’s criticism is almost entirely based on events in 2003, much of it inaccurate. She missed altogether major developments in the anti-trafficking field since then. Today, virtually every credible anti-trafficking organization – including UN agencies, NGO’s, and responsible governments – knows that children and forced adults have no place in the sex industry. Law enforcement is required to secure their safety; there can be no zone of impunity for perpetrators. In more than 10 years of experience on the frontlines of this field, IJM has found that effective policing can be done without infringing on the rights of adult women voluntarily engaging in commercial sex.

The second article, entitled “Beyond Rescue,” provided a grim snapshot of the lives of victims, but failed to acknowledge how IJM’s holistic efforts to serve those victims with expertise and long-term commitment has transformed more than 1,000 lives.

The articles contain numerous inaccuracies, mischaracterizations and unsubstantiated allegations – particularly given that IJM was not provided the opportunity to directly address any of these issues prior to publication. Further, given that the articles build their arguments upon many of the standard misconceptions about child sexual exploitation and law enforcement intervention outlined in this document, we felt it necessary to address the following points:

  • IJM’s assistance to local law enforcement in Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, and India have resulted in the removal of more than 1,000 minor children and forcibly prostituted women from brothels. The aftercare homes where these former victims now reside acted to protect their privacy by limiting their media exposure; the author has left the victims’ voices largely unrepresented in both articles, even going so far as to say that IJM’s clients were nonexistent “ciphers.”
  • Largely drawing on experiences dating back to 2003, the first article paints the picture of a schismatic human rights field in Cambodia, handicapped by fractious discord over the role of police in preventing trafficking. This is far from the reality on the ground in 2009: It is accepted by virtually all credible and concerned stakeholders that effective legal enforcement of anti-trafficking laws is crucial for the sustainable protection of children and trafficked women.
  • IJM’s aftercare protocols for sex trafficking victims are widely considered to be state of the art by anti-trafficking professionals. The author suggests that IJM does not provide aftercare services for its clients and “abandons” victims with other providers. This is false. In all cases, 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 clients. This is the partnership necessary to secure the best possible care for victims, representative of the unified response to trafficking in Cambodia from a broad spectrum of NGOs and the local government.
  • The first article criticizes IJM’s decision to work with local police in Cambodia by quoting at length a police officer who is not identified by name, unit or rank, who admits raping and abusing women in prostitution; it cites this example of police violence against sex workers as a reason not to train police officers, rather than viewing it as an urgent call to prosecute abusers and better train and equip police to perform their duties ethically. Corruption and abuse by police is common around the world; however, it should be noted that the quoted officer is not identified as a member of the Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Unit (AHTJP), the unit IJM trains and works with in Cambodia. This unit takes the lead in enforcing Cambodia’s anti-trafficking laws in brothel areas where children are most likely to be trafficked. The AHTJP has earned a solid human rights record and has not been implicated in abuses against women and children in the sex industry.
  • IJM does not “raid” brothels, as the articles state, but provides investigative information – and where requested by the police, offers technical assistance. The operations are legally permitted, police initiated and court approved. Further, IJM most often provides social work support during such operations to ensure excellent treatment of both victims and non-victims impacted by the police intervention.
  • The author suggests that removing children from brothels results in their replacement by other children, sometimes younger siblings. IJM’s experience is that if children are removed from prostitution without the authorities also apprehending and arresting pimps, brothel owners and traffickers, it is not unlikely that perpetrators will simply replace them with others. For this reason, IJM never buys children out of brothels or attempts to remove them without the explicit involvement of local law enforcement. It is the local police with the authority to enter premises, who must ensure the safety of victims and apprehend suspected perpetrators. IJM has found that perpetrator accountability – in the form of jail sentences, not fines – is a crucial element to deterring this crime. Critics of IJM’s law enforcement model have yet to propose an alternative for securing the safety of victims while also ensuring perpetrators are held accountable for the crime of child rape, slavery, and trafficking.
  • In both installments, IJM is criticized for placing child trafficking victims in secure environments from which they cannot leave. Our experience with child victims of sexual trauma has shown that this approach is necessary for two reasons: 1) victims must be protected from the real risks of being re-trafficked, and 2) traumatized child victims must be protected from going back to prostitution in the critical period after their rescue (most often marked by heightened emotion, confusion, health concerns, etc.), whether they want that or not. This is in line with generally accepted global norms and practices established for the protection of trauma survivors. Further, the experience of IJM and other NGOs in the field has shown that engagement with responsible law enforcement is the best way to protect traumatized victims of sexual exploitation from both risks.
  • The first article states that $4 million was provided to IJM over six years by the U.S. Government for its anti-trafficking activities. It implies that this is a large and disproportionate sum, when in reality it represents less than 5% of IJM’s budget during that period. Moreover, anti-trafficking funds are a very small part of the U.S. foreign assistance budget. As a point of reference, during the same period, the U.S. Government’s HIV/AIDS prevention program disseminated 2.2 billion condoms at a cost of $408.2 million.5

1 "A Modern Form of Slavery, Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Thailand," Human Rights Watch/Asia, 1994.

2 UNAIDS, 2007.

3 IJM has no status to remove minors ourselves and does not do so. Nor does IJM buy minors out of prostitution because it would not deter perpetrators from simply purchasing another child.

4 "Sex Workers in Europe Manifesto," October, 2005