After a long day and night of flying, we finally made it to our destination in S.E. Asia in the wee hours, caught a couple hours of sleep, and hit the ground running this morning. Our first stop was to the country headquarters of Exodus Road. Exodus Road shares an office space with an organization called Freeland, an NGO dedicated to investigating both animal and human trafficking globally. Together, they have joined forces to create the Liberty Alliance, a coalition with the goal of uniting organizations that are fighting human trafficking. Previously, many of these NGO’s were working solo, and failing to share information. Together, they can pool resources and information and be even more effective.
Our first meeting was with Steve (last name withheld), the founder and executive director of Freeland. Steve has an incredibly impressed resume that makes him perfectly suited for this kind of work. Steve was in national security for many years, trained in analysis and intelligence collection. He used to work with counterinsurgency response in Afghanistan, and later started his own organization to do private investigations for other international groups. This led to an interest in addressing animal trafficking, and then later to the issue of human trafficking. Today, Freeland has reps in DC, Brazil, South Africa, Beijing, Indonesia, and New Delhi. They run both investigations and training and have hired former police and military from other countries, as well as journalists and marketing specialists. They have a diverse, multi-national staff. For the last year, they have been pooling resources with several orgs into Liberty Alliance, with equal buy-in, sharing secrets and avoiding competition so that they can be more effective. The Exodus Road is a driving force behind this coalition.
After meeting with Steve and learning some of the philosophy behind what they do, we were taken into another room to meet with a few of the undercover agents who comprise the Alpha Team. They tun investigations in the area where we are staying. They were three unassuming men with various backgrounds who spend their days (and nights) tracking brothels and identifying and rescuing women who have been trafficked. They were clear that they are not here to judge or address the sex tourism industry. Their goal is assuring that women are not being held against their will, and that minors are not being sold. To illustrate what they do, we were shown covert footage of two very young Burmese girls who had been shuttled into a hotel room with two undercover agents, as a “mamasan” bartered the price of their virginity. They looked young and very scared, but it was clear this kind of negotiation was commonplace. With the help of these undercover agents, these two girls were rescued. But the agents we’ve spoken with have emphasized that while rescue is a huge value, their end game is prosecution. Without prosecution, each trafficker just goes and finds more girls. Their goal here is collecting evidence and partnering with local police to assure that traffickers are put away.
The investigators also shared a lot of their tactical strategies with us. I wish I could share this part, because it was fascinating, but in order to protect their ongoing investigations we need to keep it under wraps. But know that these guys bring insane knowledge of undercover operations, and that this box is full of all manner of spy gear that allows them to monitor and record evidence, which is crucial to building a case.
As the three undercover agents shared some of their stories with us, it struck me that these guys really are modern-day knights in shining armor. They are completely normal guys – you would never know what they do if you met them on the street, and they would likely be mortified at me calling them heroes. They take their jobs very seriously and are incredibly humble about what they do. They are unassuming men from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities, but they are united in dedicating their lives to freeing girls from sexual slavery. When I asked what got them into this kind of work, each of them commented on the rewards of this work and the satisfaction they get in making the world a safer place. It was clear that they are passionate, and all of us were fighting tears as they answered our questions about what drew them to this line of work.
One investigator, who has a background in criminology, said, “I really dislike people who destroy the lives of others for a profit, and I want to see them suffer. These are people who prey on the weakest people in society, and exploit their weakness and fears. There is nothing worse than that.”
Another investigator said something that was really profound for me:
“Our hope is to return girls to their family. That’s the place where they should be.”
Yes. Family preservation. This is why the cause resonates with me. I so desperately want to see children in families, and Exodus Road is restoring that for girls who have been taken under false pretense. Of course, these issues are complicated. In a later post I’m hoping to address how and why girls are trafficked, and also to talk a bit about the difference between trafficking and the commercial sex trade.
But today, we met some heroes who have dedicated their lives to restoring the lives of others, and I felt hope amidst the darkness. There are troubling things happening globally, and our world has a terrible shadow side. But in those shadows, dedicated men and women are working to shine a light.