15 December 2017

Freedom for the Captives

‘IJM clients, rescued from slavery and other violent oppression, can smile knowing that they are now free’

The Story

Let me tell you the story of Mien.

Mien grew up in a town in Cambodia called Svay Pak. Her family was destitute, her father a violent alcoholic. Just to put food on the table her mother regularly borrowed money from local loan sharks. Their financial situation was not a secret and as pressure mounted, multiple pimps and brothel owners began pressuring Mien’s mother to sell her into a brothel to ensure the family’s survival. At first Mien’s mother resisted, but finally she succumbed. So at age 13, Mien’s virginity was put on auction at a local brothel about a block from her home. Because of her high value to the brothel owner, Mien was locked away until the highest bidder was found.

Once a man was found willing to pay a high enough premium, Mien was raped for the first time. She was then allowed to return home but required to report back to the brothel on a moment’s notice; she had become a commodity. From that first day forward, Mien served an average of three men a day.

Sadly, Mien’s story is not unique; there are many others like her. UNICEF estimates that there are nearly 2 million children worldwide involved in the commercial sex trade and, according to the US State Department, there are an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 children, women and men trafficked across international borders annually.


Mien’s story, however, does not end there in the brothel. Investigators from International Justice Mission (IJM) first discovered Mien during covert operations in Svay Pak. It took IJM two years of gathering firm evidence of child trafficking and then persuading the authorities to act, but a rescue operation eventually took place, freeing 37 children from the horrors of forced prostitution. But Mien was not rescued; she had been told by the brothel keeper that she was to hide if the police ever came, because they would put her in prison. As a result, Mien continued to suffer a life of abuse.

Yet IJM did not give up. Three years later, IJM found her in another brothel in Phnom Penh, having been re-trafficked. IJM brought in the local authorities to carry out a rescue operation and Mien, along with 27 other victims, was finally set free.

After her release, Mien went to an aftercare home where she received counselling to begin the process of healing in a safe and loving environment. It took time, but Mien eventually learned that she was safe. In the aftercare home, Mien said, “My life went from bad to good.”

Her time in the aftercare facility also offered the opportunity to receive an education and vocational training. Mien underwent a tailoring course which allows her to work part-time in a tailor’s shop, giving her a legitimate income and the chance to be successful, independent and free. She also works at the aftercare home’s vocational centre, which employs former trafficking victims and produces beautiful silk pillow covers. Today, Mien is a remarkable woman who has since got married.

When not working as a tailor, Mien volunteers at a community centre, sharing her story with other children at risk in the village of Svay Pak. Once the brothel building where Mien was first violated, today it is an incredible community centre, serving the neighbourhood with literary classes, health care, a school and other vital services. Mien says:

“My first time at the community centre, when the car stopped, I felt so scared to get out. But when I did get out it was good. Everything has changed. Before when I was here I was forced to be a prostitute; now when I teach the children I feel like I am staff. I am proud of this.”

Following her release and with the support of IJM, Mien – along with eight other victims – testified in court against the individuals who had exploited her for their own profit. Thanks to IJM lawyers, the five perpetrators were successfully convicted for their crimes.

Furthermore, trafficking in Svay Pak has now changed for good. The main thoroughfare of Svay Pak used to be jammed with brothels in which hundreds of young girls were on open sale to sex tourists and foreign paedophiles. But today there are no more brothels lining the village’s main street. Instead, there isa community centre and a vocational training centre, standing as beacons of hope.

There is hope

Mien’s story highlights for us the reality of the hell that some people are forced to live through when they are taken advantage of and abused by others who are stronger and more powerful. But it also demonstrates the hope that there is, hope that people can be rescued and their lives changed, hope that justice can be done and will prevail, and hope that communities are transformed.

We work in 12 countries around the world to tackle injustice, employing lawyers, investigators and aftercare professionals who work alongside local officials to ensure immediate victim rescue and aftercare, to prosecute perpetrators and to promote functioning public justice systems. And we are excited about the changes we have seen, both in the lives of individuals like Mien and in communities like Svay Pak.

As well as tackling human trafficking, IJM tackles other issues of injustice, including: widows whose land is stolen from them; men, women and children who are forced to work as slaves; and people who suffer violence at the hands of police officers. For example, when Rose and her mother, Namusisi, had their land forcibly taken from them by a relative, IJM Uganda intervened and through mediation returned their home to them. And when IJM investigators in India heard about the owner of a brick kiln using slave labour in April 2011, they gathered evidence and worked with the local authorities to free those being held. Over 500 people, both slaves and their dependents, were released.

How did it all begin?

IJM was founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen, a committed Christian who worked for the US Department of Justice and was seconded to the United Nations as director of investigations following the genocide in Rwanda. It was during this time that Gary realised that it is possible to use existing national laws to rescue, represent and protect people who are the victims of illegal conduct, such as forced prostitution or bonded labour. Gary came to the realisation that we serve a God who is passionate about righteousness and calls us to follow his character of justice. Since IJM’s inception in 1997, we have rescued thousands of victims of violent oppression and have seen real change in communities around the world.

When God called Moses to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelites, in Exodus 3, He said:

“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey… So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

Today, God still hears the cries of the oppressed and He still wishes to rescue them and bring them to freedom. God uses His people in this work; we, His people, are called to take action.

Stages of rescue

Mien’s story demonstrates the importance of every stage of our work:

 Putting together correct and sensitive information through investigations and carrying out the actual rescue in conjunction with local authorities.

 Intensive and sustainable aftercare enabling those rescued to go on and make a living.

 Prosecuting the case through the criminal justice system. If convictions are secured, countless others are saved from the trauma of being enslaved by those same perpetrators and a clear signal is sent, letting others know that such exploitation will no longer be tolerated in these areas.

 Pursuing structural change in communities where we work and therefore decreasing the numbers of people exploited.

Change is Happening

In 2011, IJM lawyers, investigators and social workers partnered with local governments to serve more people than ever before.

Victories in 2011 include:

 More than 1600 children, women and men were rescued from violent oppression like sex trafficking, forced labour slavery and illegal detention.

 More than 100 traffickers, rapists and other criminals were convicted as a result of IJM casework, with hundreds more charged or facing trial.

 More than 4000 children, women and men were served by IJM aftercare.

 A dozen bars and brothels were ordered to be permanently shut down for sex trafficking crimes.

This is just the beginning. There are more people waiting to be rescued, but IJM is committed to helping each and every one of them and will persevere to ensure that justice does prevail. IJM already has plans to dramatically expand the movement to end slavery in India, begin critical new projects around the world to protect children and families, and seek to rescue even more people than last year. In doing so, IJM is gradually bringing freedom, justice and change to the vulnerable, the poor and the oppressed.

Recently, we have opened a regional office in Northern Ireland with the aim of raising awareness of, and support for, our work around the world. Just as God called Moses on behalf of the Israelites, we believe God has called us all to play our part in fighting against injustice. We would love to share further with anyone interested in hearing about us – so please get in touch at ireland@ijmuk.org and check out www.ijmuk.org to read more stories of lives changed. Let’s be involved in the work of bringing God’s light into the darkness and freedom to those in chains.

Ruth Cooke with Rebekah Hill