Cambodia Summer 2016

International Justice Mission: Cambodia 

By Joshua Carback

On the morning of August 3, 2016, I strutted out of my apartment, secured the gate of my residence behind me, and approached the tuk tuk driver waiting on the street with an unusual request. This summer I worked as the legal intern for International Justice Mission’s (IJM) Cambodian office. I have always left for work at 7:00 AM sharp. Get out the door—get breakfast— and get cracking. That was the routine. The next day I was returning to the States, however, and before I left there was one last destination to check off my list, a name that once conveyed a horror sadly unknown to much of the world: Svay Pak.

For years, Svay Pak was an infamous global hotspot for sexual slavery and commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) crime. As Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof recounts in his bestselling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009), seven and eight year-olds were sold on the streets of Svay Pak for sex with impunity.[1] Sadly, Svay Pak is just one location in the developing world where one could once find some of the 35.9 million persons abused and degraded by slavery.

Fortunately, IJM began combatting crime in this area in the early 2000’s as a part of its mission of fighting violence against the poor worldwide. Last year, IJM’s CSEC project closed after studies demonstrated that the prevalence of CSEC crime nationwide had been significantly reduced. I went to Svay Pak to pay homage to the good work done by IJM, and to give myself perspective on the good work that continues to be done through IJM’s new Cambodian project funded by USAID to fight forced labor slavery.

As IJM founder Gary Haugen explains in his recent work, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (2014), forced labor slavery is a plague that especially afflicts the poor in the developing world. Such slavery typically begins with the deception of well-meaning migrants seeking legitimate work abroad by exploitive brokers and businessman. These wolves in sheep’s clothing lure their prey in with appetizing promises, only to trap them into a debt-bondage scenario that devolves into a harrowing cycle of violence, captivity, and abuse.[2] 

IJM employs a distinctive collaborative case work methodology: IJM offices process a critical mass of individual cases involving violent abuse with specific victims and perpetrators over the course of several years.[3] In Cambodia, the forms of forced labor slavery IJM’s office confronts include: 1) domestic servitude of female Cambodian migrants in Malaysia and Singapore, 2) enslavement of Cambodian men in the Thai fishing industry, and 3) forced marriage of Cambodian women to Chinese men (the notorious “Chinese Bride” cases).

I was thrilled to be put hard to work as soon as I arrived on substantive tasks related to IJM’s mission in Cambodia. While case specific information is privileged and confidential, I can say that the range and depth of IJM’s collaboration with the Cambodian government is truly impressive. Consistent with its goals under the Cambodia Counter Trafficking-in-Persons (CTIP) USAID grant managed by Winrock International, IJM’s program here is full spectrum.

IJM does aftercare, facilitating partnerships with local organizations to get victims the rehabilitative care they need to be restored to their communities. IJM helps authorities investigate cases and provides legal representation for trafficking victims, pursuing civil and criminal relief in the public justice system. And IJM does important work in the policy domain as well, advocating for public justice system reform, and implementing police training programs that improve the efficacy of CTIP ground game operations in South East Asia.

This experience has been enormously transformative for me in equipping me with practical experience in engaging legal and policy issues related to combatting transnational organized crime. I also immersed myself into Cambodian culture. I learned as much of the Khmer language as I could from my Cambodian co-workers along my journey, and made educational extracurricular researches into Cambodian history. This effort included trips to the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and important points of historical significance regarding the tyrannical Khmer Rouge regime that killed approximately two million people during the late twentieth century.

The horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime illustrated at the Toul Sleng (S-21) torture facility, and the Choeng Ek killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, cast not only a shadow on Cambodia’s past, but also on its future: the regime exterminated the professional classes, a move that has crippled Cambodia’s development ever since. In short, Cambodia has exposed me to a great number of issues that affect public justice systems in the developing world.

Above all, the relationships and conversations I have had during my brief time in this part of the world have been truly amazing. Saroeun Sek, IJM’s lead lawyer in the Cambodian office, is a case study in inspiration and fortitude in the fight against injustice. One of the top attorneys in Cambodia, Saroeun’s journey began as a DJ in a bar where girls were sold for sex. When IJM investigators approached him to act as an informant, he agreed. Saroeun’s continuous work with IJM resulted in his decision to attend law school and ultimately become the head IJM Cambodia’s legal department.

Over the past ten years, Saroeun has helped take his country back from traffickers, representing over 100 trafficking survivors and helping to implement significant public justice system reforms. It has been an honor serving with this man, and learning from the example of both he and my other colleagues. These men and women have the humble sense of duty finely expressed in the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed sleuth: “L’homme c’est rien–l’oeuvre c’est tout”—“The man is nothing; the work is everything.”[4]

Find information on the International Justice Mission and Transformation: Cambodia (related video).


[1] Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn, Half of the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide 33 (2009).

[2] Gary Haugen & Victor Boutros, The Locust effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence 67-75 (2014).

[3] Id. at 246-47.

[4] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, in I The Complete Sherlock Holmes 224 (2003).