Afesip called it a rescue, and though observers do not doubt the NGO’s good intentions, some are questioning the tactics and logic behind the mass removal of 83 women and girls from the Chai Hour II Hotel on Dec 7.
Support is strong for the rescuing of child sex workers and women forced into prostitution. But sex worker representatives and a leading academic have voiced concern about methods employed during the hotel raid and the ensuing temporary detention of adult women who may, or may not, have chosen to work as prostitutes.
Pich Sok Chea, a secretariat member of Women’s Network for Unity, a sex worker’s collective, said Monday she supported a complaint made by females from Chai Hour II Hotel against Afesip, accusing the NGO of illegal detention and defamation.
“Afesip is very disrespectful to the adult prostitutes because they are also human beings,” Pich Sok Chea said.
“They were able to choose this work, but they were scolded and called sex workers. This is discrimination.”
Adult sex workers must be treated with respect and not like criminals, she added.
Sok Sam Oeun, Cambodian Defenders Project executive director, said the weight of the law lies with Afesip’s handling of the joint operation which included police and a court official.
The suspected sex workers were detained for under 48 hours, and Afesip was authorized by the police to do so, he said.
The women broken out of Afesip’s temporary shelter on Dec 8 were to be held until they had been questioned by police. After that they would have been free to leave, said Aarti Kapoor, Afesip’s legal adviser.
When they arrive, the girls sometimes don’t want to be there, Kapoor said, although they often choose to stay on with the NGO for vocational training.
International Justice Mission, a US-based Christian NGO that takes part in brothel raids with anti-trafficking police, fully supports Afesip’s handling of the situation, an IJM official said.
“The bottom line is that police don’t have resources and sufficient training as yet to conduct a pro-active raid,” said the IJM official, who requested anonymity.
IJM conducted its first brothel raid in March 29, 2003, in Svay Pak village, and has been training Cambodian police for three years in interview techniques and crime scene preservation, the official said.
During the Svay Pak raid, 37 trafficking victims, some as young as 5, were rescued.
Thirteen men and women from Vietnam were subsequently charged with trafficking and drug distribution by Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
IJM trains police so that evidence stands up in Cambodian courts as well as courts in Australia, Britain and the US, if a foreigner is arrested here and deported for trial.
But one anti-trafficking expert said IJM’s expertise is uncommon.
A more appropriate role for other anti-trafficking NGOs, such as Afesip, would be passing on information to the police and caring for victims following a raid, rather than taking part in the raid itself, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The NGO doesn’t necessarily know any more than the police about how to conduct a raid,” the source said.
The source was also critical of the fact that a French television crew was allowed to film the raid. “It’s not appropriate to film children or…suspects,” the source said.
Afesip should be extended full support so that any underage girls and women forced into prostitution and taken from the shelter during the Dec 8 attack can be rescued and the perpetrators prosecuted, the source said.
But there needs to be a future analysis of exactly how an NGO should be involved in such an operation, the source added.
Afesip staff attended the raid as monitors and to make sure the women and girls were not treated as criminals, Kapoor said.
Kapoor added that although she was initially uncertain about the legitimacy of filming the raid, the footage may now be useful as evidence. Some have also questioned the rationale behind conducting the Chai Hour II Hotel raid when sex is sold openly from karaoke and massage parlors, hair dressers, night clubs and bars across Cambodia.
It may be time to consider legalizing prostitution based on the model applied in the Netherlands, said Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development.
“I feel pity for these young women when I see they are subjected to [detention],” Lao Mong Hay said.
Brothel licenses could be issued to managers considered willing and able to protect women from violent clients, he said.
Brothels could then be subjected to regular inspections to ensure children are not being prostituted and that women are not being forced to sell their bodies, and women could be given regular medical checkups.
Pierre Legros, Afesip’s director, says the NGO’s tactics are appropriate. “I’m tired of people saying we have gone too far,” Legros said shortly after the raid on the hotel where Afesip claimed some 200 women and girls were allegedly working as prostitutes and virgins were being bought and sold.
“When you are an activist you have to take risks,” he said.
Mu Sochua, former minister of women’s affairs, said she supported Afesip’s actions.
But effective and strict monitoring of Cambodia’s ubiquitous brothels would be a better alternative to large-scale raids of individual establishments, she said.
Rescue operations would then differentiate between victims of the sex industry and women who want to remain in the business, Mu Sochua said.