What to do when the Keystone Cops get into human rights work

The best way to illustrate the antics of NGO “rescuers” seeking to save sex workers from themselves? Thailand’s Empower Foundation turned to the golden age of silent cinema cop drama to explain why these US-backed larks turn their lives upside down.

Laugh now. The State Department’s annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report is on its way. TIP scores and ranks countries based on how much they are doing to “combat trafficking,” based on US goals, with the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.

In 2008, the Thai government passed over-broad anti-trafficking legislation, which, as Empower points out (PDF) leads to frequently violent police raids on their homes and workplaces—in much less slapsticky versions of the scene above.

If the aim of anti-trafficking legislation is to restore human rights, then why, in enforcement, do NGO’s rely so heavily on threats of public shaming, violence, confinement, and deportation—all tools of power and control that anti-trafficking campaigners frequently ascribe to “pimps and traffickers”?

NGO-conducted raids to satisfy US metrics on “combatting trafficking” aren’t just confined to Thailand. Much of Southeast Asia has been on the US watchlist at one point or another. Below, a video of an actual raid in Malaysia, filmed by sex workers.

In 2008, Malaysia had been ranked at “Tier 3” in its 2008 TIP report, the lowest ranking possible for a country. “Rather than address the real labour trafficking issues,” said the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, “the government set out to close down the sex industry. Now nearly all brothels in Kuala Lumpur have been shut. Sex workers are forced to work in dangerous and difficult conditions on streets throughout the capital.” In 2009, after the Malaysian government’s anti-sex work campaigns, the US raised Malaysia’s rating in the TIP report to a more favorable “Tier 2.”

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