The controversial arrest of 14 Vietnamese girls and women June 20 for immigration violations was spurred by the independent investigative work of a US NGO that specializes in rescuing victims of human trafficking in developing nations, NGO and police officials have said.
The Washington-based group, International Justice Mission, spent just two days in Phnom Penh, investigating brothels in Russei Keo district’s Svay Pak commune. During that visit, IJM investigators rented the services of four young girls.
But instead of bringing them to a hotel to pursue unsavory ends, the investigators delivered them —along with a lengthy file on their investigation—to Ministry of Interior police.
The investigation, Ministry of Interior officials say, provided information that led to the raids of three brothels that freed the 14 other girls and women.
However, Ministry of Interior police and NGO workers agree that though IJM’s investigation was thorough, some observers are miffed that the rights group did not collaborate with local authorities.
A representative of IJM contacted in Washington would not comment in detail on IJM’s Svay Pak investigation, citing protection of the anonymity of its investigators and activities. The representative said only that “it is IJM’s policy to always work in cooperation with national and local authorities to rescue victims of trafficking and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
IJM President Gary Haugen testified before the US Congress last month, saying that investigators had just returned from Cambodia.
“Our investigators rented a 12-year-old and 13-year-old for about $40. IJM was able to rescue these girls, along with two others, but hundreds remain unrescued,” he said.
The US-based International Justice Mission was launched in 1997 by Haugen, a former attorney in the US Department of Justice. His experience includes leading the investigation into genocide in Rwanda for the UN. IJM employs a staff of lawyers, criminal investigators, researchers and government relations experts, and works in several countries, including India and Thailand.
Their board of advisers is comprised of dozens of influential US citizens, including members of the US Congress, officials from Amnesty International, Unicef and countless religious groups.
“International Justice Mission is an international human rights agency that provides a hands-on, operational field response to cases of human rights abuse referred to us from faith-based ministries serving around the world,” Haugen said in his US Congress testimony.
Their mandate, as stated on their Web site, is to “offer professional services as a ministry of the Christian faith for the benefit of all people…[and] serve the victims of injustice by providing a referral agency to overseas Christian workers who encounter people suffering abuse in their communities.”
Sentiment on IJM’s methods is mixed, as many observers agree that their practices are unorthodox, but note that their actions are excusable since police are usually incapable—or unwilling—to crackdown on the trafficking of underage girls.
Ten Borany, deputy director of the Ministry of Interior’s criminal department, complained that IJM did its investigation without cooperating with police or NGOs.
“Their team investigated three brothels in Svay Pak and found out there were underage girls in those brothels. After their investigation, [IJM] met me and requested that the police crackdown on those brothels to save the girls,” he said. Police then requested and received a court warrant to raid the brothels, he said.
Pierre Legros, ex-regional director turned adviser for Afesip, the NGO where the 14 girls and women were staying before their arrest, denied the brothel raid was only attributable to the work of IJM. He said the raids came about from their interviews with the girls, and from Afesip’s pressure on police to investigate further.
Paying for the release of girls is another contentious subject.
“Whenever someone buys a girl, it is wrong,” said Ten Borany, “but when it is done as a part of an investigation, we can make an exception. We think that although they are not investigators, it is not a problem, they informed the police about the underage girls in the brothel, so it means they are helping the police fight against human trafficking.”
“I hate them,” he said of IJM. “It is all the same, when you rent the girl to rescue them, you still rent a person. This is an approach that other organizations use, but not Afesip, because you can’t buy a human being.
“The job [IJM] did in terms of investigation was very good, but this is not a way to act,” Legros said.
Legros added that since IJM only paid for four girls, they were not encouraging the flesh trade. But their practices are “a question of ethics.”
After the Svay Pak raids, the 14 girls and women were eventually brought by the Ministry of Interior to the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center. But “the girls wanted to return to the brothel, if we kept the girls against their will, we can be charged,” for illegal confinement, said CWCC Director Chanthol Oung.
The 14 girls and women spent the night in the care of the Ministry of Interior and were then brought to the NGO Afesip, where they remained until they were taken into custody by police.
Since the arrest, three of the girls have been released, as the judge determined that they were under the age of 18.
“At the end of the day it is OK because the victims got out,” said Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua of IJM’s activities. “But the organization is gone. They should have been involved with local NGOs and police from the beginning. But in only two days, what can you do?”
Mu Sochua said she would “discourage” the exchange of money for the rescue of the girls. “I don’t blame them for what they have done, but I would not want it to happen every day.”
Chanthol Oung agrees that cooperation with local authorities and NGOs is necessary, but finds it hard to condemn IJM for their work in Cambodia.
”I think it is better to at least work with NGOs and finally the police,” she said. “But the police are not always reliable. In Cambodia, the context is a little bit different. We have to look at it on a case by case basis.”
She said, though, she has no ethical problem with the money exchanged for the girls. They never paid for the girls outright, she said, they only rented their services for one night.
“I think they were good people who wanted to help the girls,” Chanthol Oung said. She called the re-arrest of the girls a “lesson learned,” and said IJM cannot be blamed for this.