January is Human Trafficking Month

As we work together as a global community to stop human trafficking, we reflect upon the reality that some of the human beings that are being sold as commodities were lured into the lifestyle by someone they loved and trusted. Someone who looked good to them and who promised them a better life. I have seen this dynamic through years of prosecuting human trafficking cases, and it is corroborated through research.

Part of the problem in erradicating human trafficking is its detection. This is complicated by the fact that some people find it difficult to accept that as much as we might like to think that it is not a problem in our community—it happens everywhere. Consider the following.

Precious Goods

The street was dark, lit only by the fluorescent lights emanating from the storefronts where the merchandise was on display. The merchandise was different in every store, showcased with bright lights and music. We noticed, however, that although each storefront displayed something different, there were a large number of similarities between the items for sale.

We were hoping no one would come to buy what was for sale on this street, and were pleasantly surprised to see that at 10:00 pm Friday night, we were the only ones here. Wouldn’t it be great if no customers came here at all? Unfortunately, they would no doubt show up later as the night wore on—due to the nature of what was for sale. The merchandise, you see, was women.

The Red Light District in Pohang, South Korea is located right next to the city police station. Although prostitution is illegal in Pohang, many people feel that having law enforcement right next to the city’s prostitution district is a good way to ensure the safety of the women who sell sex right next door. Still, it is heartbreaking to see the pretty young women on display. Many people believe they are entrepreneurial women choosing to sell their bodies for money to make a living. Those of us who prosecute human trafficking cases, however, know better.

Because I was teaching a class on human trafficking at Handong International Law School, I had the opportunity to accompany this enterprising group of Christian law students who regularly visit the Red Light district as a ministry. Unlike customers who view the women as objects for sale, or tourists who wrinkle their nose in disdain, scoffing at the immorality and indecency of the “profession” these young ladies have chosen, the law students take a very different approach. Their mission is to show love to the women who display themselves in these windows at night. They warmly great the sex workers, bearing gifts. Sometimes they give the women shampoo or lotion. We distributed cans of iced coffee.

In the Pohang Red Light district, there is one main street, considered to be the location for the best merchandise. We intentionally walked down two other streets, where the girls were less expensive—because they were older or otherwise less desirable in the eyes of the customers. We wanted to minister to these girls first.

Every girl we saw presented a similar display. Each was sitting there, scantily clad, looking bored and tired, smoking a cigarette and using an iPhone. Their incredibly high platform heeled shoes were off, as they rested their feet between customers. Many of them had televisions on in the background, usually tuned to sports. Some of the girls were with older women. Who were they? The students explained that the older women were ex-prostitutes turned brokers, whose job it was to negotiate a good rate for the girls with the customers.

The most interesting thing about this ministry is the reaction of the women when we approached. Initially, the girls were confused by our offer. Free iced coffee on a warm summer night? What was the catch? Eventually, however, every single girl we approached accepted our free gift and thanked us with a big smile.

While such generosity may have been used long ago by the perpetrators to lure many of these girls into the business, it was replaced with a different form of control, one that we also saw that night—behind the tinted windows of the vehicle that ended our ministry.

 Prisoners in Plain Sight

After traveling down two of the streets in the Red Light District, our trip was cut short by an ominous black car driving with no lights on, tracking our movements, no doubt wondering what we were doing. An “enforcer,” the students explained. A gang member patrolling the “business,” to make sure no one interfered with the commerce.

Such patrol also ensures that business runs smoothly. All the girls are aware of the rules, and as much as they would like to walk off the job and back into the real world, they don’t dare.

Leaving the District, we walked one street away to McDonald’s to discuss our evening of ministry over French fries and chocolate dipped ice cream cones. In the bright neon of the restaurant, it seemed surreal to consider what we had just seen. I guarantee you that very few of the tourists and families standing in line to buy their children happy meals knew that women were being sold for sex one street away.

How did these women get into the situations they did and how can we help as a global community? By understanding the pervasiveness of the problem, that it involves much more than “just prostitution,” and knowing what to look for. We will address this is more detail in the next column.

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