What It Takes to Free a Sex Slave

Rescuing someone from human trafficking is harder than it seems. Here's what it really takes.

Sarah sat nervously fiddling with the napkin in her hands. Lights flashed and music blared all around us.

Next to Sarah, the brothel owner bartered her price. He offered my partner, an undercover national investigator, sex with Sarah at a premium because she was still considered “fresh.”

We were in a Southeast Asian brothel commonly known as a “fishbowl”—a bar where women are lined up on stools or couches behind a large wall of glass windows.

Sarah, a native of a neighboring country, was 15 years old. Her mother had recently sold her to pay off a family debt. Sarah’s virginity had brought her trafficker $600 just three days earlier.

As you might imagine, I felt rage. The only hope I had in that moment was knowing our interaction with Sarah’s pimp was being captured by the covert cameras my partner and I were carrying. I knew when we recorded the sale of Sarah, when we gathered enough evidence to prove money changed hands with the intent of sex with a minor, we could spark a raid with the local police on her behalf.

And while I knew this was the right course of action to work within the local legal system, it was a brutal thing to walk away from the brothel later that night, leaving Sarah still inside.

Rescue from the sex trade sounds glamorous. On the outside looking in, rescue looks a lot like Jason Bourne in a fist fight or Liam Neeson breaking down doors to find his daughter in Taken. It sounds like the stuff of Hollywood.

But real rescue can’t be depicted in a two-hour movie on the big screen. My experience as a former undercover investigator and now the leader of The Exodus Road, a coalition of more than 20 investigative organizations responsible for nearly 200 victim rescues in the past year, has given me a more realistic point of view.

The rescue of a sex slave actually requires a huge investment of time, resources, strategy and grit. When we look at Sarah’s case, and when we think in terms of what it really takes to rescue a sex slave, we see that effective rescue is much broader and more complex than the simple kicking in of a door or grabbing a young girl from a brothel. There are essentially four main steps to rescuing a sex slave:

Investigations: Build a Target Package

The first step in freeing a sex slave is, of course, finding them. At a practical level, this means sending trained, government-sanctioned undercover investigators into the darkest corners of the world to look for victims.

In Sarah’s case, the national investigator I was with had been working undercover for about a year, building relationships with the brothel owners involved. It was this long-term trust-building process that led the pimp to immediately call when he had a “fresh” girl.

Investigators then build what we call target packages—case files of evidence proving criminal activity of trafficking. They visit the bar or brothel in question and pose as customers. Often, they wear covert camera equipment to document both still shots and video surveillance evidence.

When investigators visit a scene, they look specifically for signs of duress, in an effort to distinguish between prostitutes over 18 years old and there by choice, and victims of human trafficking working against their wills. Marks on the body, fearful movements, young age and downcast eyes are all red flags to investigators that the person before them is trapped.

A completed target package, including reports and surveillance evidence, is then delivered to local police.

This initial process can take anywhere from one week to a year or more, depending on the scope of the operation. A quality target package represents hundreds of dollars and many nights of hard, depressing work for any investigator. But, unfortunately, sometimes even the best target package isn’t enough.

Government Partnerships: Easier Said Than Done

As much as I wanted to grab Sarah and run that night in the brothel, to do so—to take a minor against her will, even in an effort to “rescue” her—would be considered kidnapping.

A nongovernmental organization (NGO) or foreign charity does not have the authority to pull a victim out of a brothel. Instead, NGOs must spend time in a country developing relationships with key government officials. Without strong government partnerships, groups will continue to hit walls that no amount of money can break through.

This can be challenging. When I lived in Southeast Asia, it took a great investment of my time and resources to gain the trust of the local authority in charge of counter-trafficking. It was more than a year before we actually worked a case together, but today, he remains one of our greatest partners.

Once relationships with trusted officials are in place, investigators deliver the target package of evidence to those officials with both the desire and capability to act on the case. At that point, the NGO should begin to play a supporting role, offering accountability and resources for the government lead on the case. This is an essential piece of the process because long-term change in trafficking will best be brought about by those within their own home countries.

Ideally, a multi-disciplinary task force would circle around the specific case detailed in the target package. At the “table” would be the police partners, the investigators, a national social worker, a local lawyer versed in victim rights and a translator or medical doctor, as needed. The group would then make a plan for the sting operation or raid, set a date and gather resources.

Thankfully for Sarah, the national investigator had strong relationships with the federal government, and through working in partnership with both a local NGO and a nationally run anti-trafficking task force, a plan for a holistic, victim-centered rescue operation began to take shape.

Raid: To Kick Down a Door

The actual kicking down of the door is the part most susceptible to corruption and tip-offs. In fact, in Sarah’s case, someone leaked key information minutes before the rescue operation began. As a result, the first raid failed because Sarah’s pimps pulled her and all other underage victims from the brothel and placed them in an apartment off the grid for a month.

In developing countries especially, it’s very difficult to execute a successful raid where the victims are cared for through social and translation services and all the perpetrators are arrested. Sometimes, pimps sneak out hidden doors. Sometimes victims are placed in the same police car as their broker. These are obviously tactical errors for countries with sound police methodology in place, but they are the ground-level realities for government forces in the developing world with little resources, training or support.

Advocacy and Prosecution: That Which Cannot Fall Through the Cracks

After a successful raid, both advocacy for the victim and prosecution for the criminal are crucial. To wash our hands of the justice process after the door is kicked down would be a failure—both to the victims themselves and to the larger strategy of slowing the human trafficking machine.

Depending on the resources available, victims are either transferred to a government facility or to a private safe house immediately after a raid. The ultimate hope is that they would receive holistic care and eventually testify against their traffickers in court.

Effective rescue is much broader and more complex than the simple kicking in of a door or grabbing a young girl from a brothel.

But the reality is this rarely happens. Many times, especially if strong social services are not in place, victims will run away and try to escape the government’s control. This puts the vulnerable back on the streets. Again, government and NGO partnerships are crucial here.

For the criminals, any arrest or prosecution is disruptive. Legal fees, jail time and loss of business make the sale of humans a less lucrative trade. Regardless of the verdicts, raids and arrests send a message to the local community that sexual slavery is not acceptable. When we apply pressure to the trafficking mechanisms from a legal standpoint, we slowly force modern-day slavery into the category of higher risk and lower reward. This is potentially one of the greatest steps we can make as a community fighting this injustice.

It took two long months after that night I first saw Sarah for her to be rescued. It required the planning of two raids and a small army of people, more funding than we imagined and the tenacity of the national investigator who pushed the case through both legal roadblocks and corruption.

You Might Also Like

But, finally, Sarah was pulled from her brothel, along with seven other underage victims who had also been trafficked from a neighboring country. While her trafficker underwent a legal trial, Sarah was transferred to a government facility with less than ideal conditions. Even though there were no quality after-care centers in the immediate area, the authorities would not release her to travel under NGO custody and care, despite our advocacy efforts.

What Do You Do?

So suppose you are doing mission work in a red-light district in Cambodia and you see a 13-year-old girl sitting at a bar with a 60-year-old white man. She doesn’t speak your language, but you suspect she’ll be forced to have sex with someone later that night if you don’t intervene. What do you do? Do you force her into your car and drive her to safety? That definitely is the natural instinct.

But that is not the best path to rescue for the girl in front of you, for the one who will take her place the following night or for the local culture that needs to rise up and stand against the sale of its children.

One option: give that information to trusted authorities or an anti-trafficking NGO in the area. Find a local trafficking hotline to call in an effort to provide a tip for local investigative teams or police. Seek ways to build a relationship with the young girl across the bar, as well.

And please pray—pray for the Sarahs of the world and for the brave few who are engaged in the gritty work of finding, freeing and restoring them. Consider investing in freedom efforts financially or by volunteering your skills, time or influence to the fight.

Every day, I find myself wishing that rescuing a sex slave was a simple, inexpensive, quick process. But it isn’t. It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes an entire army to free one.

Photos by Jeremy Snell


Frank O'Neill


Frank O'Neill commented…

It's so amazing that this takes place and it happens all over the world and people just have no idea. It's such a sad and deplorable situation these girls are put in for money, greed and the plain disregard of human life for more money. Thank you for this article.

Julie Titus Sanders


Julie Titus Sanders commented…

Such an excellent and informative view in answer to the desire to DO something. Thank you for this clear explanation and the valuable insights. Press on!



Ian commented…

Thank you for your candid sharing and care shown towards these poor victims. Please continue your noble effforts in this direction. This is pretty awesome. God bless you!



dianascimone commented…

Great article. It is infinitely more difficult to rescue a child than it is to keep her from being trafficked in the first place. That's why in addition to providing services for rescued victims, we must also focus on prevention. Our goal at Born2Fly is to reach kids before the traffickers ever get to them. NGOs, churches, and schools can download our free anti-trafficking curriculum, available in Spanish, Thai, Hindi, Russian, and many other languages. Download at www.born2fly.org.

Diana Scimone
The Born2Fly Project to stop child trafficking

Amanda Pollet


Amanda Pollet commented…

The courage and unrelenting efforts of those fighting the good fight against trafficking is heroic, and I'm so pleased that despite all set-backs, people are keeping at it. Even with so much international attention focused on the issue, it is such an excruciatingly slow-going process. I believe with endurance and persistence, we WILL slow the 'trafficking machine'. My hope is that in our efforts to rescue, we remember redemption and pray for redemption of families and communities living in a place dark enough to justify buying and selling children for profit. Are we bold enough to pray for the hearts of those creating the demand for sex-slaves? Are we brave enough to walk alongside communities, introducing them to the Living Water that will satisfy every thirst and the power of the Spirit that will break the bonds of evil? For a social change to take root, people's hearts must meet their creator, and to pour out our life unto bringing opportunities for the gospel is also gritty, grueling, and painfully slow. But I believe those relationships are infinitely worth it, and a crucial part of the great rescue mission.

Please log in or register to comment

Log In