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Beyond the Rescue

Many brothels are run by older women, such as the suspects arrested in a raid by police and Agape International Missions (AIM) last year.
Image: Claire Eggers

Many brothels are run by older women, such as the suspects arrested in a raid by police and Agape International Missions (AIM) last year.

The police caravan jolts to a stop by a green metal shack in front of the White Building, a Phnom Penh housing project whose dingy facade conceals poor artists, sex workers, and drug dealers in shadowy, winding hallways.

The anti-trafficking police’s first raid in the notorious apartment complex results in the arrest of three women running a small, unmarked brothel. While officers gather evidence, the trio sit handcuffed on a couch in a sparse lobby leading to one room off the back and two more up a wooden ladder. Each contains a single bed, nightstand, and a ceiling so low that visitors have to crouch to step inside.

In a blur of shoulders and sequins, the six underage girls working there shuffle into a white van headed to the police station. Social workers from AIM ride alongside them and stay overnight, assuring each victim that she is not in trouble and explaining the safe house options available.

Many times, such girls will not know their exact birth date, only their sign on the Chinese zodiac; the youngest rescued that night was born in the Year of the Horse, making her 13 or 14.

Raids like this one seem to encapsulate American evangelicals’ recent fascination with the global fight against trafficking: Perpetrators arrested and jailed, and their young victims set free. But the reality in Cambodia—which ranks No. 3 in the world for modern slavery—doesn’t exactly line up with most Westerners’ faraway assumptions.

“They think all trafficking is girls chained up,” said Andy Blalock, investigations manager for AIM’s rescue team—nicknamed the “SWAT team”—which partnered with police to conduct the White Building raid as well as dozens of others last year. “It’s more the invisible chains and family pressure.”

In Cambodia, many young girls enter sex work with the consent or encouragement of their family and friends as a way to make money; along a busy street of karaoke bars and beer gardens, passersby can spot boyfriends dropping girls off at work.

When compassionate Westerners read that the commercial sex industry involves an estimated 2 million children globally, many think that in order to end sex trafficking, ministries need to free them all. But Christian leaders of the modern abolition movement in Cambodia encourage a broader understanding: Success is not about the rescue.

“Rescue is a one-off event. You can rescue 20 girls from a brothel, and they’ll get 20 more,” said Helen Sworn, founder of Chab Dai, a coalition of 50 organizations involved in trafficking prevention and recovery across Cambodia. “This is not a two- to three-year problem. It’s a lifetime problem.”

Chab Dai members—including IJM and AIM—have set their targets far beyond individual raids. To make a dent in Cambodia’s sex trafficking industry, they first had to change the nation’s institutions.

Job Done—Or Just Begun?

Compared to the emotional drama of a rescue story, training seminars, paperwork, and procedures can seem boring. But such “capacity building” (in NGO-speak) is what has worked most to get prepubescent girls out of brothels and off the streets over the past decade. Though adult prostitution is also illegal in the country, the industry thrives; activists and authorities mostly focus enforcement efforts on underage victims.

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