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When the roosters began crowing at 3 a.m. followed by a steady pounding — rice being dehulled for the day’s meals — we knew we weren’t in San Francisco anymore. When two S.F. lawyers and a paralegal signed on to a trip to Thailand organized by the International Justice Mission, lying awake before dawn in an Akha village near the Burmese border wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. They just knew they wanted to see firsthand the work this 4-year-old group of lawyers and law enforcement professionals was doing overseas, and hopefully put their legal training to some use. Like them, I had heard the founder of IJM, Gary Haugen, speak in Berkeley, Calif., months ago. A Washington, D.C., lawyer and 37-year-old father of four, Haugen’s resum� includes heading up the U.N.’s Rwanda genocide investigation. Haugen held his audience with eye-opening tales of labor abuses in India, where more than 10 million children have been sold into bonded slavery, and sex trafficking in Thailand, where IJM has taken up the cause of the vulnerable hilltribes of the north and in particular the abduction of young hilltribe girls into forced prostitution. Based in Washington, D.C., IJM also has field offices in Kenya and the Philippines. For Joanne Lin, an S.F. immigration attorney; Bettina Moore, a health care specialist at Hanson, Bridgett. Marcus, Vlahos Rudy, and Matthew Richards, senior legal assistant at Tatro Coffino Zeavin Bloomgarden, this trip was exotic pro bono; for our IJM hosts, it was a chance to generate interest in their special brand of human rights work — and raise money — in the legal community and beyond. The work looked overwhelming for a tiny staff of three (along with about six “operatives” who help with the legwork) headquartered in a converted house, cooled only by a ceiling fan, on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. From there, IJM’s Thailand office takes on the country’s multibillion-dollar sex industry. It’s a job complicated by police corruption, laws that are rarely enforced (believe it or not, all prostitution is illegal in Thailand, and the penalties are severe for trafficking in children), and a culture in which no one flinches when a hilltribe father, strapped for cash, sells his teen-age daughter to a Bangkok brothel owner. “In the red-light districts in South Asia and Southeast Asia, tens of thousands of women and children are bought with the same ease with which you or I might haggle over a used car,” Haugen had told us. In Thailand, teen-age girls are routinely enticed to the city by fraudulent job offers, by relatives who sell them to brothel agents or by physical abduction. IJM uses criminal investigators to infiltrate the brothels, document with surveillance equipment where the girls are being held — often behind padlocked doors — and then identify police contacts to help get them out. Gathered in the steamy Chiang Mai office gulping bottled water and Coke, we learned that last part can be sticky, since so many among the police are on the take or actually own their own brothels. IJM figured out that they had to be careful to not use cops in their own “territory.” For one brothel raid in Chiang Mai, IJM brought up police all the way from Bangkok to get the job done. Hoping to remain out of the public eye, IJM then credits the cops with the raid. “The police get strokes for it,” said Bill Samuels, an IJM investigator. One big raid (39 girls) scared many Chiang Mai brothel owners, he said, and word on the street was to be on the lookout for the “New Zealand BAB.” Samuels loved that, and henceforth, he kidded his operatives, they would be known as the New Zealand Boys Against Brothels. Our education began shortly after arriving in Bangkok with a night tour of Patpong, the city’s infamous red-light district, led by IJM’s director of investigations, Robert Mosier, and Robert Chadwick, a retired judge advocate for the U.S. Marines from Carmel, doing a volunteer stint as the Thailand office’s interim director. It was seedy enough — the neon and naked women — but, as Samuels explained, the real action is more often in back rooms in out-of-the-way spots around the city. The underage girls, he said, are rarely found in the bar scenes. He relies on taxi drivers, the country’s unofficial tour guides to brothels. By posing as a sex tourist and insisting that he only wants young girls, he is usually taken to the driver’s uncle or some other relative who may be using girls (and sometimes boys) as young as 9 or 10. One of these brothels is known as “The Orphanage.” The youngest girls — and virgins — we were told, are highly sought after; for one thing, they are the least likely to be HIV-positive. According to a Thai social services director, the customers of these children are usually wealthy foreigners. After a raid, girls generally are sent to an after-care facility to begin the long and difficult process of rehabilitation. And IJM hands over to Thai prosecutors the information they need to prosecute the brothel owner. The operation is far from perfect: Shelter facilities are inadequate; some of the victims are reluctant to leave a brothel for an unknown future; and so far, there has not been one successful prosecution of a brothel owner. We did hear from a critic of IJM’s “Rambo” operations — a social services coordinator — and Bob Mosier acknowledged they needed to work together, with better post-raid plans for the girls. “The IJM are pioneers. We are learning along the way,” he said. Complicating the prostitution issue is that hilltribe girls are reluctant to go to police for help because they’re not legal citizens. It is the citizenship issue — a new casework area for IJM — that would take us next to Chiang Rai and, armed with briefcases, into the remote villages outside that city. Residents of Thailand are required to carry a citizenship card (there are at least a dozen different kinds) that determines where they can live and travel, if they can own land or a business, and other limitations. Recent changes in Thai law now allow tribal people to apply for full citizenship, but most have no papers and can’t prove they were born in Thailand. And most don’t realize that this application process is free. IJM has uncovered evidence that there are probably many victims of extortion in the villages. IJM sat us down in the airy veranda of our Chiang Rai hotel, ordered us papaya drinks and handed us a seven-page manual on investigating government document extortion. We would be going into villages to conduct interviews with possible victims and documenting the evidence for possible intervention by IJM later. The free ride was over. It would be dusty and humid, and lunch would probably be a freshly killed animal. They weren’t saying what animal. The dirt roads were washed out and rutted, and we were sure we heard shots from the Thai-Burmese border clashes. Everyone smelled of deet. “The interviews were a real challenge,” legal assistant Richards said, “especially with the language barrier, but my legal training I think was put to good use.” Not only did we need a translator from Thai into English but also from Akha or Mien or Lahu into Thai. “The people were skittish, and really were afraid to talk to us,” he said. Richards said the trip confirmed for him, though, that he did want to specialize in international law after law school, which he will begin next fall. Since IJM wants its operations to eventually be Thai-led, there is a tremendous need for training of Thais in legal and social services. “It could be done with U.S. volunteers traveling to Thailand or setting up workshops for Thai lawyers in the U.S. on children’s and immigration law and litigation strategy” for successful prosecution of brothel owners, Richards said. Moore said the trip showed her how daunting, how challenging it was to intervene in these overseas areas — the sex trafficking, the corruption, the after care and immigration issues. “It was important to get a clear understanding of the complexities and then be creative about how a U.S. attorney could contribute.” One Thai office staff member asked her to research and send them U.S. laws that could serve as models for Thailand’s legislature. Lin said her experience representing battered immigrant women came up a lot on the trip. “Many of the women we met were victims of domestic abuse.” Lin said U.S. lawyers could help analyze laws — immigration, money laundering, labor — that might prove useful in combating abuses. IJM enlists the services of big national firms like Hogan & Hartson, which has been working on an illegal detention project in Africa, and White & Case, on bonded labor issues and, in the Philippines, failure to prosecute sex abuse. March Bell, IJM’s director of interventions, says in the field, IJM needs lawyers that are problem solvers. If the number of applications for summer interns from law schools is any indication, IJM is a popular destination for law students wanting to focus on overseas and human rights work. Of course, it always comes down to money. Michelle Conn, the organization’s fund-raiser, recently came back from a trip to Seattle where IJM is working with churches on a new idea that would recruit teams of lawyers to provide financial support. In Seattle, the goal — maybe a tad too optimistic — would be to have 100 lawyers give $1,000 each for $100,000, which would support one justice center for one year. “We are hoping that lawyers will see this in a similar way that doctors view medical missions like Doctors Without Borders.”

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