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Beyond ‘raid and rescue’: time to acknowledge the damage being done

Raid and rescue operations are widely portrayed as heroic efforts to save the innocent from the evil. But, as this BTS series makes clear, the reality is not so clear-cut.

Thien/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Abolitionists at Work

The police shout. They storm into an upscale house wearing bullet-proof jackets with guns poised to fire. They scream in Spanish and the people inside drop to the ground. The camera pans the floor where several black men and women sprawl face down. The police begin to handcuff those on the floor one-by-one. From between the legs of a policeman, the camera focuses on two blonde-haired, white men. They too lie face down, but one raises his head, looks around, finds the videographer, winks enthusiastically at the camera, and smiles.

This man is an American who has orchestrated this raid in the Dominican Republic as a sting operation to ‘rescue children from sex trafficking’. In a short video documenting events, viewers follow him and his American colleagues as they go undercover on the island nation as sex tourists. We watch as they pay money across a table strewn with beer bottles to buy sex and then pretend to get caught in the police sting alongside the ‘traffickers’. We learn that the Americans posing as customers later fly home to the US as the Dominicans are jailed for agreeing to sell them sex. The video ends with stark white words against a black background: ‘26 victims liberated, 8 traffickers arrested. All thanks to your donations’.

The ‘abolitionist’ NGO behind this video is one of many that engage in professional undercover role-playing, which they frame as a mode of humanitarian intervention. In one account of the NGO’s founder, we hear that he ‘risks his life to save children around the world’. Organisations like his invite the public to ‘join the jump team’ to take part in these international anti-trafficking adventures by donating money to support them. NGOs specialising in undercover raids partner with others claiming to provide shelter and rehabilitation to the freed victims. But what are the true impacts of their initiatives?

But what are the true impacts of their initiatives?

Six Researchers Provide Insights on Raid and Rescue

Kamala Kempadoo has shown that the ‘war on trafficking’ offers a new vehicle for the ‘white man’s burden’, allowing white men from the global North to play out their saviour fantasies on objectified brown Others from the global South. Other scholars have highlighted the problems with the militarised approach to their operations, while those on this site have often pointed out that some of the high-profile organisations in this field are misleading, exploitative or fraudulent. Most damning of all is the critique that the anti-trafficking movement does nothing to address the real roots of exploitation.

Within the context of these critiques of mainstream approaches to trafficking and ‘modern slavery’, raid and rescue raises a distinct set of issues. Despite the reassuring winks of its promotors, it requires serious and sustained scrutiny, in part because of the damaging impact that it can have on the very people – predominantly women – that it claims to help. In observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and to kick off the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, BTS has commissioned this special series to reflect on some of the problems that raid and rescue poses.

In doing so, we gather together scholars researching raid and rescue in places as far apart as Brazil, India, Nepal, the UK, US and Vietnam. All of our authors describe the practical difficulty of distinguishing between people who really do wish to be rescued and those who prefer to continue working and without interference. The murky realities they depict contrast sharply with the clear-cut ‘certainty’ of those engaged in raid and rescue missions.

Abolitionists often categorise the people they catch as either ‘pure’ victims or ‘pure’ criminals, with no grey zone in between. According to their classificatory system, all we need for freedom and justice to prevail is to identify the ‘slavers’ and separate them from their ‘slaves’. This is the kind of logic that underpins fanciful saviour interventions like ‘Slavery from Space’, which purports to save slaves by getting volunteers to map their workplaces using satellite imagery.

That logic is having chilling consequences around the globe. At best, people who are forcibly rescued may experience raid and prolonged subsequent detention as a form of ‘secondary trafficking’, often resulting in financial hardship or in rescuees fleeing from their rescuers. At worst, forcible rescues have precipitated the deaths of those who have been rescued and held against their will. Even those who are not physically or financially harmed by being rescued are nevertheless often treated with indifference, contempt, and hostility by the people tasked with the extended process of caring for them. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rigid, unambiguous logic of raid and rescue frequently misidentifies people, overlooking those who want rescue and ‘rescuing’ those who don’t.

Some women lose months or even years of their lives locked up in rescue centres waiting for courts to determine whether they deserve to return to their lives.

Raid and Rescue’ as Violence against Women

Although raids do not only target women, the anti-trafficking movement’s well-documented focus on women means that it is largely women who are swept up in their sometimes violent net and detained against their will in shelters. This means that is it largely women who experience the consequences of being ‘saved’, severed from their friends and family as well as their source of income, while being subjected to the sometimes caring, sometimes ambivalent, but often abusive treatment meted out in shelters. It is more often women who lose months and sometimes even years of their lives while they remain locked up in rescue centres waiting for courts to determine whether or not they deserve to return to their lives. Under these circumstances, is it not reasonable to ask whether raid and rescue is not itself a form of violence against women?

For some women, rescue can be a welcome reprieve. For many, however, it is an institutionalised form of ongoing oppression. What this collection of essays shows is that some–particularly migrant women and women who work selling sex–are more vulnerable to being targeted for rescue than others. But, given that all women exist at the intersection of a web of structural discriminations, would it not be better for those who wish to stop the gender-based violence to instead find ways to address these structures?


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