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Thailand's Brothel Busters

A U.S.-based group is spurring high-profile raids to free sex workers. But what happens when the women don't want to be saved?

But that doesn't mean others aren't caught in the raids -- or that all trafficked women necessarily want to be rescued. Burmese migrants, for example, rely on traffickers to flee to Thailand, and into the sex trade, because they have few opportunities to support their families at home, where they'd live in fear of gang rape and forced labor. One 19-year-old Burmese sex worker told me she could have found work in Thailand as a domestic, but she'd heard stories of girls who weren't paid or were beaten by their employers. (In one recent case, a Burmese domestic worker in Thailand died after her employer set her on fire and left her without food, water, or medical care for three days.) "Some women, particularly those with families to support, see brothels as their best option," says Marshall. "And given their other choices, I think this is understandable."

During a recent anti-trafficking conference in Hawaii, experts and human-rights advocates called for a list of "best practices" for raids and rescues -- including more attention to who does and doesn't want to be taken from brothels. IJM officials say they have been working to coordinate their investigative work with other organizations and the Thai government, to make sure women receive "aftercare" following the raids. But clearly, the spectacular busts won't stop anytime soon -- and neither will the flow of women and girls into brothels. "If it were your 12-year-old daughter in the brothel, you'd want the raid," says Marshall. "But you also have to acknowledge that it's someone else's daughter that might end up in the brothel because your daughter got out. Raids don't necessarily address the roots of the problem and can actually make things worse if they are not done right."

Several months ago, Cambodian officials working with IJM -- and with Dateline NBC cameras rolling -- raided a brothel in Svay Pak, a notorious shantytown outside Phnom Penh. Thirty-seven girls and young women were taken from the brothel and placed in a shelter. One was only five years old; several girls were under 10. But after the TV cameras were turned off and IJM had left the country, six women, thought to be about 18 or 19 years old, climbed over the fence at the shelter and ran away. Local aid workers believe that the girls, who were illegal migrants with few places to go, returned to a brothel. And a new group of children is expected to arrive in Svay Pak's brothels before long.

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