AFTER seven and a half years of helping the Philippine Government combat sex trafficking, particularly in Cebu, International Justice Mission (IJM)-Philippines director Andrey Sawchenko will take on a new mission: battling labor trafficking in southern India.
After three years of working in the IJM field office in Thailand, Sawchenko came to Cebu in 2007 to implement Project Lantern, an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to test a theory: if anti-trafficking laws are enforced, fewer children will be exploited in the sex industry.
When the five-year project ended, a study was made and it showed that the number of minors available for commercial sex in Metro Cebu went down by 79 percent.
Sawchenko, 38, will leave Cebu with that comforting thought.
“We’re thankful that we’ve made real accomplishments in the last seven years,” he told Sun.Star Cebu last Thursday.
Jesse Rudy, director of the IJM field office in Kampala, Uganda, will take over Sawchenko’s post in the Philippines in September.
Sawchenko will be stationed in Chennai, India, where bonded labor and slavery are rampant, a problem he was “following from the distance.”
Composed of lawyers, social workers, community activists and other professionals, the IJM operates in 20 developing countries with the goal of protecting the poor from violence.
It established a field office in Manila in 2001. In 2007, the IJM expanded to Cebu to implement Project Lantern.
“The IJM chose Cebu (for Project Lantern) because it seemed like a good place to test the theory,” said Sawchenko.
“We had a strong law here, but the implementation was not yet strong. And we had lots of children being exploited in the sex industry,” he said.
“(Even so), the opportunity was there…you could see what would happen if the laws were actually enforced.”
After the IJM published the results of the project in 2011, Sawchenko said, discussions with government agencies on having the project replicated in other areas followed.
In 2012, the IJM opened another field office, this time in Pampanga, where sexual exploitation of children is also prevalent.
From 2001 to 2013, the IJM helped rescue 1,175 victims of human trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation in the country.
It helped in the arrest of 621 suspects and in the filing of charges against 563 perpetrators.
IJM-supported convictions stood at 108.
When IJM came to Cebu, Sawchenko said, it took a “massive effort” to launch anti-trafficking operations.
“It really felt like a miracle to get any rescues, or to get any charges or to get any victims restored in those early days,” he said.
At the time, the government had no dedicated anti-trafficking unit. “It was a challenge because (anti-trafficking operations) was a specialized kind of work and (law enforcers) are doing it without specialized training,” said Sawchenko, who works with about 120 IJM staff members, interns and volunteers.
But over the years, he said, law enforcers have acquired the necessary expertise.
“These seven years, we’ve seen some big steps forward,” he said.
“Today, there are fewer minors sold for sex in Cebu than there were seven years ago, and that’s a huge deal for thousands of thousands of vulnerable young children growing up today,” added Sawchenko.
But more work needs to be done, he said, to make the country’s judicial system more effective, from rescuing victims to serving justice to the perpetrators and ensuring that the victims recover from the trauma and lead normal lives again.
Sawchenko credited IJM’s various partners in the government and the private sector for the accomplishments made by his team.
“I wasn’t the one who started this work in Cebu,” he said. “There were many who laid the foundation a long time before, and I’m not going to be the one who finishes it up.”
One of the accomplishments of IJM he is most proud of, he said, was developing “champions who for the next generation in Cebu will be leading the charge to protecting children, protecting the community from violence like human trafficking.”
Sawchenko said he will leave the Philippines confident that the team he’s leaving behind as well as IJM’s partners will continue the success made against sex trafficking in the last seven years.
“It’s not like everything has been done, for sure. But at the same time, something has been done,” he said.