Justice for Cambodia

If any of the recent history of the anti-trafficking movement in Cambodia sounds familiar to you, it may be because one of its unique features is that much of it played out on an international stage.

This post is the third in a 4-part series on Justice to coincide with our current sermon series “Seek Justice”, which you can find HERE.


Albert and his wife, Tina, worked as missionaries in Cambodia with Mission to the World. There they helped develop the Cambodia Freedom Project in an effort to encourage and equip the local church to engage the issues of injustice in the arena of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.


If any of the recent history of the anti-trafficking movement in Cambodia sounds familiar to you, it may be because one of its unique features is that much of it played out on an international stage.

International attention was first drawn to Cambodia in 2004 with the airing of Dateline NBC’s Children for Sale, still identified as a watershed media event with respect to its influence and impact. Hidden cameras exposed horrifying scenes featuring underage girls in the infamous brothels of Svay Pak, American sex tourists, and a dramatic brothel raid. Nearly concurrently, Nicholas Kristof began writing a series of columns in the New York Times detailing his experiences investigating modern day slavery in Cambodia including his emancipation of two underage victims of sex trafficking. NBC, the New York Times, and the dominoes had begun to fall.

The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, reflecting governmental response to trafficking in persons, moved Cambodia to the lowest of its three tiers and in that same year, the United States awarded Cambodia a $50 million grant to jump start a local anti-trafficking response. There was a corresponding influx of anti-trafficking NGO’s that focused initially on aftercare centers and rehabilitation and momentum continued to build.

Sustained and growing international media attention through books, documentaries, feature films, and even celebrity advocacy continued to apply a healthy pressure on the local government such that by the late 2000’s, a series of local governmental initiatives and laws were enacted leading to the closure of brothels throughout Phnom Penh in particular. And while the once overt exploitation was pushed “underground,” still, tremendous progress was and continues to be made, with significant reductions in prevalence particularly in the area of minor exploitation. The burgeoning NGO community, with its solid base of international support, matured steadily and would soon be leading the way in research and in modeling best practices. While there have been more recent challenges, still ours is a landscape of high NGO engagement and generally broad collaboration.

While the positive impact of the media attention can’t be denied, some critics have argued that the portrayal of the issue, invariably highly sensationalized around brothel raids, has contributed to a significantly narrow understanding of human trafficking encompassing little more than moral outrage and calls for rescue. I was personally humbled by how little I understood about the issue and admittedly had a “Dateline NBC view” of trafficking upon joining the team. Our team came to realize how enormously complex the issue is with the deepest of roots in systems of injustice, cycles of violence, and structures of evil.

It is a church just one generation removed from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge which sought its systematic and utter destruction. But they did not and will not prevail.

To illustrate but briefly, a survey of some of the vulnerability factors for human trafficking include: high debt, extreme poverty, financial desperation, lack of education, loss or seizure of land, unemployment, lack of employment opportunities, profound sense of familial debt or obligation, large family size, breakdown of family structure, domestic violence, race, history of rape or sexual abuse, culturally accepted virginity selling, limitations in delivery of health care, chronic illness in the family, governmental corruption, lack of concern for public welfare, migration patterns, exploitative tourism, persistent demand, gender inequality, and so on. You can see that even daily brothel raids and closures, while potentially life-changing for the emancipated, may not represent an adequate solution.

An evil so complex and all-encompassing demands and requires a full-orbed response. And while there have been recent gains, Cambodia tragically remains well-established as a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking, with men, women and children subject to forced labor or sex trafficking. And so while many NGO’s are engaged at every level of the counter-trafficking response continuum, from education and prevention, to rescue and rehabilitation, to reintegration and social enterprise, to legal advocacy and prosecution, our desire is to see the local church live out its message of hope, freedom, justice and love. Our conviction is that the church has a message for the broken and the exploited (and outrageously even for the exploiters!), and so our vision follows:

The Cambodia Freedom Project seeks to serve and equip the local Cambodian church to engage the issues of injustice associated with sex trafficking and exploitation, that they may embrace their calling as the community that bears witness to the justice, compassion and love of God.

We sought first to root our ministry neither in 
human compassion with all of its limitations, 
nor in popular trends with their propensity for
change, but rather in the unchanging truth of 
God’s word. In serving and mobilizing the local 
church, we felt the greatest opportunity for
 enduring impact was simply to see and study
 together what the Bible teaches us about the
 justice of God, the dignity of humanity, God’s good design for human sexuality, and God’s compassion for the marginalized and the oppressed.

We labor to continue to see the church here grow in vitality and maturity, be it through pastoral training through our Apprenticeship Program, discipleship through our Dormitory Ministries, and now the Cambodia Freedom Project. It is a church just one generation removed from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge which sought its systematic and utter destruction. But they did not and will not prevail. And in this nation in which evangelical Christians comprise less than 2% of the population and in which over 12,000 of its 14,000 villages are still without a church, there is light and life and a growing witness to the grace, love, compassion, and justice of God.

Another member of our church community, Joanne Song, will head to Phnom Penh in just over a month’s time. There, she’ll teach for a cutting edge mobile school program that, through grass roots education initiatives, aims to eradicate child sex trafficking.

Please pray for her to witness to a broken, recovering community. (Romans 8:16; Hebrews 2:4; 10:15) The Spirit is called “witness” because He verifies and testifies to the fact that we are children of God, that Jesus and the disciples who performed miracles were sent by God, and that the books of the Bible are divinely inspired. Further, by giving the gifts of the Spirit to believers, He witnesses to us and the world that we belong to God.

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