How do we end human trafficking? When AIM Founders, Don and Bridget went to Cambodia, they began with meeting needs that they saw right away: a restoration home for survivors, a school for those at-risk, a church and clinic to minister to the local community… Other organizations and police forces were investigating and rescuing people out of trafficking. However, it soon became clear that these efforts, while well-intentioned, were ineffective at closing brothels down and arresting traffickers. When one girl was rescued, traffickers found many more to take her place. So, in 2014, AIM assembled an innovative SWAT Team in Cambodia – one that works in conjunction with the Cambodian Police to help and support their anti-trafficking initiatives, assist in the arrest of traffickers, and ensure survivors receive the care and legal advice they need.
Over the past 7 years, AIM SWAT has trained local police to be successful in the fight against trafficking. The breadth and complexity of the SWAT Team is great. It is more than kicking down brothel doors and rescuing victims. That’s why we sat down with our Director of Rescue, Eric Meldrum, to answer some questions about the SWAT Team and how they are working to end trafficking!
What does it mean that AIM SWAT works in tandem with local police?
We officially work together with Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Police (AHTJP) in Cambodia. We work with police in the early stages of investigations. We then agree on how to support the case and work with them moving forward. This enhances trust and makes cases go quicker and more smoothly as we learn from each other, which helps with future cases. Basically, every case we do involves police at the earliest opportunity. Plus we employ 5 serving Cambodian police officers on our investigations team.
How do you find cases? What is that process?
We find a lot of cases ourselves. The police will also come to us for assistance on cases they have in their workload. Sometimes, other NGOs [Non-Government Organizations] or AIM Staff members will give us information regarding potential cases as well.
Who works on AIM’s SWAT Team?
We have 7 full time investigators (5 male police and 2 female civilians) who work on cases, finding information through research and covert operations before we can go into a raid or arrest. Then there are 7 social workers who meet survivors as they are brought out of trafficking or other exploitative situations. These social workers ensure that the women or girls understand that they are not in trouble themselves, while providing support during police interviews and beyond. Additionally, there are 7 legal staff who walk through any legal proceedings with the survivors and their families. Finally, we have a great team of support staff who ensure operations run smoothly.
What does it take for you to be able to do a raid?
Primarily, we need authority from the Chief of the provincial AHTJP Police unit plus the local prosecutor which is obtained when police provide a report detailing the information and evidence found so far during the investigation. Logistically, we need vehicles to transport everyone but also for surveillance prior to a raid. And, of course, we need to be able to finance the costs of our investigators and social workers plus police operational expenses plus victims and suspect expenses (which includes anything from food and clothing to interpreters if required).
What happens during a “raid”?
Police will execute a plan to control the target premise as quickly as possible, ensuring all people therein don’t escape and are controlled. Also, they make sure that no evidence can be destroyed prior to conducting a search to seize evidence.
What is the social workers’ role during a raid?
Once the location is secure, the social workers go into the premises to meet the survivors that have been rescued in order to provide assurance, information as to what is happening, comfort and physical items such as food, water, clothing. The social workers will remain with the survivors throughout the process and will travel to the police station and remain there with them overnight and during subsequent interviews with police until they are transferred to staff at an aftercare center.
Do you have survivors on your team? If so, do they add value in a different way?
Yes we have survivors working in our investigation and aftercare teams. Having been through the same experiences as the girls rescued, they are able to relate quickly and communicate effectively which is crucial in aftercare. For our investigator, she understands first-hand how the traffickers operate and she knows what to look for on the street and also online. She brings awareness and knowledge, as well as incredible drive, to our investigative ability and can uniquely do what no other investigator can. She’s incredibly strong and brave as a person and her ability to find out information is invaluable. She has all of the attributes of a natural investigator.
Where do women and girls go once they are rescued?
The girls will go to an aftercare shelter (either AIM’s Restoration Home or one of our partner aftercare centers). The women will be offered the chance to go to live at AIM’s Transitional Home and ideally will be offered a job at our Employment Center if there is a position available. However, being adults, the choice is up to them and they can choose to return home which we will facilitate if that’s what is wanted. Either way, our team of social workers will follow up and offer any aftercare services to the survivors if they choose.
How does a trial in Cambodia work?
The trial process works much the same way as a trial anywhere else, but in accordance with Cambodia’s civil laws and procedures. The survivor gives testimony in court in front of the judges. The trials are usually fairly quick.
How does AIM’s legal team support survivors through the trial?
Our team meets them and accompanies them through the hearings up to and including the trial. Then, they prepare them for court and to give evidence. The team will work alongside the state prosecutor to help them give their evidence.
What about foreign offenders? Do they go through trial in Cambodia? What about their home country? How does AIM’s legal team navigate this?
Yes, foreign offenders stand trial in Cambodia if they’ve committed offences here. All countries are different with regards to prosecuting offenders back in their home countries for offenses committed against children in Cambodia. The US looks to prosecute and the UK considers it but it is very rare for any other countries to do so. The US authorities (FBI or HSI) conduct their own separate investigations and so don’t liaise with our legal team.
Are raids dangerous? How do I join a raid?/How do I apply?
Yes, raids can be dangerous and have to be planned well and executed well to make sure there are no injuries to survivors, suspects, police or our staff.
Unfortunately, outside parties cannot join us on raids.
No application process since the team is made up of Cambodian police.
Isn’t it risky? How is your safety day to day?
Yes, every case carries a risk, not only from the offenders but families of offenders. We do proceed with caution and try to stay out of the limelight as much as possible. Our team and the police have the tools and resources they need to safely do their jobs.
Since the team launched in 2014, AIM SWAT has assisted the local police in arresting over 550 perpetrators and rescuing over 1,600 survivors!
AIM SWAT is a unique branch of our work, but the fight against trafficking doesn’t stop at rescue. Those rescued by AIM SWAT require the overwhelming love and comfort they receive at AIM’s Restoration Home and other aftercare programs. They need further education and vocational opportunities to break the cycle of exploitation. But even more, these survivors will find true freedom through the relentless love of Christ, just like we all will. Praise God for His unwavering strength, His steadfast love, and His heart for justice.