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Doing Justice in a World that Needs It
Human trafficking is the world's third largest criminal industry, behind only the sale of drugs and weapons. And it is the fastest growing.

It was December of 2006 and I was undercover with International Justice Mission (IJM) in a small village in Cambodia. The village was notorious for catering to western pedophiles, including Canadians who traveled long distances to have access to children sold for sexual exploitation.

"Big or small?"...I knew he was talking about children for sale.

I was on a mission to gather information and search for verification that things were as bad in this village as I had reason to believe. Within minutes of my arrival, a pimp approached me as I sat at a roadside cafe in the impoverished village.

"Big or small?" he asked me in his broken English.

Chillingly, I knew he was talking about children for sale. I followed him down garbage-strewn alleyways to the back room of a small, dilapidated wooden shack. Soon another pimp showed up with three young girls in tow. I wanted to scoop the scared little ones up in my arms and escape with them to safety. But I knew that a move like that would have endangered them even more.

Instead, I offered to come back later with friends. I showed the pimps some money to convince them I was serious. I could see they were hungry for the cash. They were like sharks sniffing for blood in the water.

The lead pimp eagerly assured me that there were lots of girls ready for us, and any other business we could bring him.

And that is sadly, tragically true.

All around the world there are children forced to work as sexual slaves to feed the appetites of pedophiles and predators. Cambodia's own government has estimated that there are approximately 30,000 children of its small nation ensnared in the sex trade.

The three young girls I saw that day are among the nearly two million children forced to work in the commercial sex trade in countries around the world. And those two million children are part of an even larger number of innocents caught in the snare of the brutal injustice of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is the world's third largest criminal industry, behind only the sale of drugs and weapons. And it is the fastest growing.

Eighty percent of the victims of human trafficking, some of whom touch ground in Canada, are women and girls. Fifty percent of victims are minors. Today, an estimated 27 million children, women and men are modern-day slaves around the world; more than double the number of people torn from Africa during the entire 400-year-long trans-Atlantic slave trade.

International Justice Mission is a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation — like the three young Cambodian girls I met that day — and other forms of violent oppression.

IJM lawyers, investigators and aftercare professionals work with local officials to ensure immediate victim rescue and aftercare, ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes and promote the healthy functioning of public justice systems and rule of law.

Throughout the developing world, the poor are routinely victimized by brutal acts of violence. Horrors like slavery, sexual exploitation, police brutality, trafficking and illegal property seizure are part of the day-to-day reality for most of the world's population already struggling to fight a way out of extreme poverty.

In the developed world, especially for those of us with good incomes who live in safe and secure neighbourhoods, we assume that if we become a victim of a crime, we will have a reasonable chance to become a victor in a court of law. We assume that if we call the police about a violent crime they will not only answer and listen, but they will come to help.

Most of the world has no such assurance. When the poor cannot count on the public justice system to protect them in the wake of violence or abuse, they are victimized once again. But when the poor can count on justice and rule of law, they have hope.

When perpetrators of crimes such as selling children for sex know there is a consequence for that act — and that it is no longer possible to purchase the complicity of local authorities — then justice is on its way. In this way, it is possible to stop such heinous crimes before they happen.

IJM exists to protect people from the violent forces of injustice by securing rescue and restoration for victims and ensuring that the public justice systems function for the poor in the 14 countries where we work.

IJM sees this as the biblically mandated work of God. It is impossible to read the Bible and not see God as a God of justice. God sees, hears and responds to the suffering of the oppressed. Our God led the slaves out of Egypt and into a promised land. Our God consistently calls His people to draw alongside the downtrodden and the suffering and warns of the consequences against those who abuse them.

The consistent nature of God is one of holiness, mercy, forgiveness, love and justice. When Jesus launched the active phase of His earthly ministry as attested to by the physician Luke, Isaiah 61 was the basis of His inaugural address:

"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”

With these words, Jesus disclosed justice as integral to His mission and gave it a priority that we cannot ignore. Christ's concern for justice is clear, whether we look at His rebuke of those who neglected the "weightier matters" of justice and mercy; His implicit censure of those who would pass by their abused neighbour on the Jericho road; or, His warning of neglecting "the least of these" in the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The call to assist the poor and defend the oppressed must touch who we are as the Church in the world.

Seeking justice holds a prominent place in the message and mission of the Messiah. How can it possibly be any less important for us?

As we seek the freedom of our neighbour — freedom from abuse, oppression and violence — we find that in some deep way we too become free — released from the suffocating air of isolating self-interest.

Recall the poverty of the self-absorbed "rich" man in Christ's parable with Lazarus begging at his gates. Christ's parable reveals a man smothered not by his affluence but by his greed; a nameless man who was imprisoned by the very gate he used to keep Lazarus away from his presence and his goods. Had he only opened the gates to "spend [himself] on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed" in God's joyful fast, then would his light have "risen in the darkness, and [his] night...become like the noonday" (Isaiah 58: I 0).

Thus the ringing words from Isaiah I: I 7, "...Seek justice, encourage the oppressed; Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow" become a vital invitation to us. If we open the windows of our concern to the world in need of justice, heaven's radiance will break through the sky and give light to us all. It is God's request of us, and God's invitation to us, that we do the kingdom work of seeking justice for the poor.

We accept the invitation to this work at IJM. In doing so we conduct undercover investigations, like my December day in Cambodia, to rescue victims of slavery and trafficking, including unmasking the ugly realities of things like child brothels and other forms of modern-day slavery. In I4 countries throughout the developing world, we train police, public prosecutors and other law professionals on how to secure justice for all citizens, not just the powerful elite.

We work with health professionals to ensure that they know the most sensitive and caring manner in which to provide physical and emotional care to victims of sexual abuse. As in Canada, health care professionals are a critical link in the detection of abuse, the care of victims and in securing the provision of evidence that will stand the test of a court of law.

What happens in the doctor's office or during a police interview can devastate an already traumatized victim even further, or it can be the first step in rebuilding their trust in those in authority.

IJM works within the public justice system to rebuild it, to make it better, stronger and to ensure that the protection of the victim is its first priority. We work with local aftercare partners to ensure that victims have access to the vital services they need as they overcome the effects of the abuse they have endured. We want them to have life, and to have it abundantly; and for many, this is for the very first time.

Abundant life is what Kunthy* is beginning to experience. Kunthy was I4 when she was drugged, violated and forced into a life of prostitution in Cambodia. She was a prisoner in a burnt-out, rotting house, not unlike the wooden shack I visited in that Cambodian village. The locals in the neighbourhood called this place the Anarchy Building. It was infested with cockroaches, rodents and disease, and controlled by drug dealers, pimps and weapons dealers.

My colleague Jim*, IJM Cambodia's Director of Investigations, became aware of the Anarchy Building, which he described as "a horrible, evil place:' He went there one night with a hidden video camera and asked about young girls. A pimp paraded three in front of him, including Kunthy. Jim left that night with what he needed: video proof that the girls were available for sale inside the crumbling walls of that dark place. Jim and his team built a strong case and presented it to the Cambodian National Police, who obtained arrest warrants for the perpetrators and agreed to partner with IJM to free Kunthy and the other children.

IJM's investigative team and the Cambodian police organized a sting operation. The pimp was asked to come to a nearby hotel with the three girls, where he was eventually arrested and the girls rescued. After enduring three months of unspeakable abuse in the Anarchy Building, Kunthy and her friends were brought to a loving, aftercare home where they received counseling and care.

IJM also works to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes in local justice systems. We work under an age-old premise: When someone about to commit a crime fears the very real consequences of that crime, they often change their mind. In the times when that doesn't happen, we're ready to act.

In Kunthy's case, IJM assisted investigators in building an air-tight case against the perpetrators, and prepared Kunthy for her day in court. When the day came, she was ready.

Today, the pimp who brutalized and victimized Kunthy and the other children is in jail, serving a ten-year sentence. The owner of the brothel is serving 15.

And Kunthy? Her life sentence to abuse is over, and her new life of freedom is well underway.

She lived at the aftercare home for several years, and attended school where she discovered she loved computers and English. Today, she volunteers at the aftercare home, teaching computer skills to other young girls who have lived through similar experiences. Kunthy is working toward owning her own internet café one day. She is a young woman with her dignity and a dream.

Unfortunately, I cannot say for certain what happened to those three young girls I saw that day in Cambodia in 2006. I reported what I had observed to IJM's investigative team and they, working alongside the Cambodian police force, kept up the pressure and the surveillance. In recent years, the crackdown on child-sex tourism and human trafficking has born much good fruit in that specific troubled area.

A visit in 2008 revealed that the village had started to be transformed. Thanks to some Canadian Christians, working with our friends at the Ratanak Foundation and other local partners, what had once been a brothel was now a community centre that housed a medical clinic offering free assessments and care to local families.

The building that had once been a place of despair and enslavement for children, now offers Sunday School and functions as a church on the weekends. What better proof is there that transformation is possible, that what is so badly broken can be fixed, than to have a brothel become a church? Indeed, some of the young women who worship there had been rescued from bondage in that very building.

On my second visit, children were playing in the streets, instead of being sold on them. I could only pray that the three frightened young girls I saw years before were somewhere in their midst, chasing a ball and laughing with their friends the way children are supposed to. I thanked God that with our faithful partners, IJM was called to take part in making that transformation possible.

*Names have been changed to preserve their identity.

Jamie McIntosh founded IJM Canada in 2002 and serves as the executive director. Before founding IJM Canada, McIntosh worked for four years in international relief and development as an advocate for children at risk. An ordained minister, McIntosh served in two different churches in California and oversaw the youth ministries of more than 35 churches in the San Francisco Bay area. Jamie is completing his Master of Studies in International Human Rights Law at Oxford University.

Originally published in Focus, Spring 2010.

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