Rescue Organisation in Cambodia Draws Government Criticism

Asia Pacific Regional Correspondent

Agape International Missions (AIM), a US-based charity that operates brothel raids and ‘rehabilitation’ programmes in Cambodia, was almost forced to leave Cambodia and cease operations this summer, after a CNN news report on trafficking that featured AIM angered Cambodian citizens and high-level government officials, including the Prime Minister.

The news report, “Life after trafficking: The Cambodian girls sold for sex by their mothers,” originally released on 22 July 2017, quickly drew criticism from the public and Cambodian government for misrepresenting the problem of trafficking in Cambodia, and defaming Cambodian women and mothers in general to raise funds.

On 1 August 2017, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen condemned AIM and the CNN report in a speech at a graduation ceremony, saying: “A foreign NGO that uses Cambodia to seek donations and look down on Cambodia very badly is not only unacceptable but also unforgivable…Whatever the cost, this organization must leave Cambodia and is no longer allowed to stay.” Hun Sen explained: “I cannot accept the broadcast about an NGO…saying that the mothers sell their daughters into prostitution. This is a serious insult…I ordered the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs to investigate it and they should shut this NGO down. You cannot be allowed to insult my people.”

Hun Sen’s statement was broadly interpreted as an executive order that would force AIM to leave the country. It came after a 31 July press conference by the Cambodian Interior Ministry announcing an investigation into AIM. Hun Sen’s speech was followed by a statement from the Cambodia’s Women's Affairs Ministry that similarly accused AIM of manipulating the information and stories they presented to CNN in order to raise funds.

The Prime Minister pardoned AIM a month later, on 22 August, following AIM’s public apology.

The CNN report that created anger was a follow-up to a 2013 CNN report on the sex industry in Cambodia and AIM’s work. The 2013 report featured celebrity Mira Sorvino as a guest reporter, with AIM acting as a gatekeeper to brothels. Misrepresentations in the 2017 CNN follow-up report that caused anger include use of old footage that exaggerate the problem of trafficking in Svay Pak, a village near Phnom Phen, where underage involvement in the sex industry was largely addressed before 2005. Sweeping generalisations about Cambodian women ‘selling’ their daughters’ virginity and into sex work were made; and misidentification of interviews in Vietnamese with ethnically Vietnamese Cambodians as interviews with Cambodian women. The concern over the mislabeling relates to CNN Report’s failure to distinguish between different local ethnicities and understand the nuanced context of marginalisation and poverty in Cambodia; but is also fuelled by extreme racism against Cambodia’s Vietnamese minority.

NSWP member Women’s Network for Unity (WNU) in Cambodia had previously criticised AIM’s actions and the original CNN report facilitated by AIM, saying that AIM had used women’s photos as ‘pity porn’ to attract donations, while failing to offer what those they claim to help need.

“You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money?  How does this help the daughter or mother? It doesn’t. It helps the NGO to make money,” Ros Sokunthy, Legal Services Manager of WNU told Asian Correspondent in a 2013 interview. Sokunthy also criticised filming in brothels, saying “It says at the club door that you cannot take a picture inside. You are supposed to delete any pictures.”

AIM has operated in Cambodia as a “humanitarian aid and church planting organisation” since 1988. In 2005, AIM’s focus switched to “ending the evil of child sexual slavery” and “defeating trafficking.” The Cambodian Government has worked closely with the charity, granting the AIM SWAT team special legal powers to conduct investigations and to arrest and detain individuals on brothel raids beginning in 2014. The week after AIM’s apology for the CNN report, AIM conducted two additional brothel raids on 29 August and 1 September, resulting in the detention of fourteen individuals.

WNU and the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers have long condemned the government and NGO’s complicit in the ‘raid and rescue’ (detention) approach, for the many harms and human rights abuses that result for against sex workers.

In 2008, under pressure from the USA, Cambodia passed the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. The law resulted in sex work being easily conflated with trafficking, undermining sex workers’ labour rights and exacerbating the existing issues associated with ‘raid and rescue’ style approaches.

Despite widespread police abuse against sex workers during a 2008-2009 crackdown in Cambodia documented in Human Rights Watch’s research, some NGOs like AIM continue to work with the police and conduct brothel raids. A UNDP report documented that throughout the Asia Pacific region, a climate of raids and policing has increased human rights abuses against sex workers. These abuses include arbitrary detention, violation of due process rights, beatings, physical violence, rape, sexual harassment, forced labour, extortion, confiscation of their belongings, deaths in custody, lack of access to medical care and other mistreatment.