By Dana Bruxvoort, HTC Associate
The emotive nature of sex trafficking has led to various “quick fix” responses that show positive, immediate results. But when knowledge doesn’t follow passion, the resulting practices are ineffective and can have detrimental long-term effects. The widely practiced “raid and rescue” model is one of those responses. Raids on brothels are often poorly planned and executed, and the chaos and violence involved can traumatize those rescued. These types of raids can have harmful consequences beyond the point of rescue.
Take this example from Indonesia: A trafficked woman in Jakarta pleaded with an NGO to rescue her and in response, the NGO contacted the government and law enforcement, mobilized a raid, rescued the woman, and returned her to her family. On the exterior this operation would be deemed a success: the woman was rescued. But the raid also had consequences that affected the lives of many other women who were not rescued in the raid.
Raids such as the one in Jakarta increase tension among the various actors involved in sex trafficking. This tension can seed mistrust between sex workers*, brothel communities, police and NGOs, and it can translate into violence against both sex workers and trafficked persons. It can also decrease sex workers’ access to health and support services and drive the commercial sex trade further underground and into less-safe workplaces. Additionally, raids can disperse sex worker networks, such as the Sonagachi Project in India, where workers collaborate to create better working conditions and identify trafficked individuals within the commercial sex industry.
Those “rescued” during raids may harbor significant distrust and fear of law enforcement authorities, many who are complicit in trafficking and actually solicit sexual services or perpetuate violence against sex workers. Interviews conducted by the Sex Workers Project revealed law enforcement personnel, service providers and trafficked women were widely critical of raids, emphasizing their chaotic and traumatic nature. The women “rescued” cited forced detention and deportation as common consequences of raids.
Operation Gilded Cage in 2005 was one of the largest sex trafficking cases in the U.S. These raids rescued more than 120 women from sexual exploitation in San Francisco. Service providers, however, weren’t granted access to the women until 24 hours after the raids, at which point federal authorities had decided most of the women hadn’t been trafficked and placed them in immigration detention.
Another untold problem with raids is that they don’t differentiate between sex workers and trafficked persons. Many women “rescued” are voluntary sex workers who have not been trafficked and don’t desire rescue. Some complain about being held in rehabilitation homes against their will, and a portion of women return to the brothels. When journalist Nicholas Kristof paid for the rescue of two Cambodian girls from brothels in Poipet, he returned a year later to find one of them had returned to her former job. After 37 girls were rescued in a 2003 raid in Svay Pak, Cambodia, at least 12 of those rescued ran away from the shelter, some of them reappearing in brothels. A police raid in Svay Pak a year later rescued the same number of girls, and within days, all had fled the shelter.
The implication of the return of certain rescued individuals to sex work is that raids may only be a band-aid solution. Raids don’t address the underlying circumstances that facilitate trafficking, such as gender disparities, poverty and lack of local economic development. If a woman is rescued, there is an unlimited supply of women who can fill her place. Additionally, many raids aren’t followed by prosecution of the traffickers, which would inhibit future trafficking. Focusing on prevention and prosecution promises to provide long-term solutions to sex trafficking and ensure sex work is not an economic choice anyone is coerced into or forced to make.
It can be easy to celebrate the initial, positive outcomes of anti-trafficking raids – such as securing the freedom of a rescued individual – and claim success. Yet despite the increasing number of raids and rescue missions staged globally, it is still not clear that there has been a significant decrease in the occurrence of sex trafficking.
There may be a time and place for raids, but only when the intervention has been carefully planned, all possible outcomes are accounted for, and service providers are granted immediate access to those rescued. Alternative approaches include more thorough investigations, long-term presence in brothel communities, utilization of service providers and a focus on prevention programs and prosecutions. Reducing reliance on ad hoc raids may mean fewer individuals are rescued right now, but implementing more effective and ethical practices will yield long-term, sustainable progress in the fight against sex trafficking.
*In this article, “sex worker” refers to an individual who has voluntarily chosen to work in the commercial sex industry and is not compelled under force, fraud or coercion.