This #Dressember, Do Not Settle for Collateral Damage

The following is a guest post by S. Schaefer.


“I only have one rule,” I typically tell slaves or survivors before an interview in which I ask them to bear honest witness about their lives. “You make the rules.”

E. Benjamin Skinner, Modern-Day Slavery: A Necessary Beat—With Different Challenges, Nieman Reports

“How can this be a rescue when we feel like we’ve been arrested?”  

~ A girl “rescued” by IJM


Dear friends supporting IJM’s #Dressember (or any other anti-trafficking NGO),

There are many reasons that more headway isn’t being made in regard to human trafficking. But one of those reasons is not something you’d expect.

It’s rooted in our very approach to this issue. 

Please read the excerpts from the article below and learn about the historical and political context of the anti-trafficking movement and its prevalent but counterproductive equivocation between prostitution and slavery.

Then, please direct your fundraising to an organization other than IJM.

Direct your fundraising to an organization that (1) addresses the causes of slavery systemically, (2) empowers victims and enables them to live their lives freely, (3) differentiates between prostitution and slavery, (4) fights for human rights, not just implementation of their morality, (5) (and this is important) respects the importance of consent on the part of the people we see as victims, and (6) prioritizes the long term good of slaves and their families over sensational “rescues.”

Free the Slaves is a great option. It is the sister organization of Anti-Slavery International in London, the world’s oldest human rights group.

IJM’s has undoubtedly done some good. But for many, they have done the opposite:

In the case of its best-known and most controversial work — brothel raids — IJM provides evidence of trafficking to police in countries including India, Cambodia, the Philippines and, in the past, Thailand; and it collaborates on “interventions” to remove victims from the establishments and arrest and prosecute their abusers. Although the raids have undoubtedly saved a number of trafficking victims from exploitation, human rights advocates have criticized the interventions for disrupting HIV-outreach efforts, heightening the potential for police brutality and subjecting adult sex workers and trafficking victims to possible deportation or long involuntary stays in shelters.

While the president of IJM knows these things, he sacrifices these victims based on the conviction of a spiritual hierarchy. Essentially, even if working with corrupt authorities makes things worse for slaves, he will do so on the belief that this will somehow transform or harness that power:

[H]e has based his decision to work with local police on the premise that power can be harnessed to bring about justice — especially when tethered to divine aims. As Haugen writes in his book Good News About Injustice, ‘God is the ultimate power and authority in the universe, so justice occurs when power and authority is exercised in conformity with His standards.’

This despite the fact that in many countries the police are actually involved in trafficking!

According to a 2006 USAID-funded study that drew on interviews with 1,000 sex workers and sixty police officers, approximately a third of the freelance sex workers surveyed had been raped by a policeman in the past year; a third had been gang-raped by police. As for sex workers who worked in brothels but also accepted clients outside, 57 percent had been raped by a lone policeman; nearly half had been gang-raped by law enforcement. Fifty percent of freelancers and nearly 75 percent of the brothel group had been beaten by police in the past year.

This is incredibly problematic — and not the only way to help:

The narrative that frames such vigorous interventions as the noblest response to the scourge of sex trafficking is an understandable one, but it skirts the economic and social problems that make recovery so difficult for the “rescued.” It also rips their lives out of context, so that an approach that might be suitable, if still controversial, in a country with reliable law enforcement and criminal justice systems is applied in a country where those systems are more likely to be part of the problem than the solution.

After a 2003 IJM raid in Cambodia, underage prostitution actually increased and dispersed. Furthermore, access to HIV treatments and other aid workers was denied.

Please do not support an organization that accepts collateral damage like this, an organization that does not care to learn from victims or address the system in an effective way. Be the person who can help this little girl find an answer to her question:

“Sister,” Preung Pany said, “we tell our stories to so many journalists, so many people like you, but then nothing changes. Still we are raped by the police, still there are young ones in the brothels. There are so many people working on this — the rescuers, the HIV people, people like you — and so much money going into this problem. But why doesn’t anything change?””

The programs that do this, that make real changes, they aren’t just a wish:

In the aggregate, programs that liberate slaves, prosecute traffickers, then provide survivors and their communities with formal microcredit structures, along with basic health and educational provisions, are relatively inexpensive. Though their partners in different parts of the world require widely varying investments, Free the Slaves estimates that, on average, it costs about $400 to free and comprehensively rehabilitate a slave to the point of self-reliance.

While IJM gives lip service to many of these restorative goals, they do not provide data or concrete details to back that upPlease contribute to a real solution, not to IJM.

For more information, check out the work of E. Benjamin Skinner, especially this great piece. (You can find more of his work here.)

Featured image: “Make Freedom Happen: Dressember Day 1” by cutandchicvintage on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

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