Buying a Slave’s Freedom: What Not to Do


by Amanda Kloer

image5-300x199When I was just out of college, I had a job answering phones for an anti-trafficking NGO, which meant I got a lot of interesting calls. One day a pastor called to say that his church had been conducting fundraisers all year long and had raised just under $1 million to help trafficking victims. He estimated this was enough to buy hundreds of women and children out of prostitution. He was planning to take a team of five to Thailand in two weeks, and wanted to know if someone from my NGO would come along to help them find the best places to buy these women. At this point in the conversation, I had so many red flags going up in my head that my brain felt like it was full of cheerleaders on No-Doz being trained for air traffic control. So I talked him through the reasons why buying a trafficked person’s freedom is not a good idea. Here’s what I told him:

First and most importantly, what do you think a trafficker will do with the money he gets when you buy a slave from him? He might buy himself a nice car or something else, but chances are he’s going to use it to traffic more people and make more money. Like any entrepreneur, he’ll invest his returns (which you’re giving him) in his business. So if you pay $2000 to free a women who is in prostitution against her will, the trafficker might be able to find two more women for that amount to enslave. Give a trafficker money, and he’ll use it to traffic more people.

Secondly, by buying a person’s freedom you’re putting a financial value on that human life just as surely as the traffickers do. How do you negotiate a price? Is a man or a woman worth more? An adult or a child? When you buy slaves, even if it’s to buy their freedom, you reinforce the human trafficking culture — that the freedom of any individual has a price tag.

Lastly, when the penalty for trafficking people is more money and no jail time, trafficking becomes a much more attractive industry for criminal entreprenuers. The drug dealer and the arms trader both risk prison if they are found out, but when you buy people back from human traffickers, they profit without the punishment. A practice of buying freedom is a good way to encourage more people to go into the trafficking business.

The pastor who called me that day had the best of intentions and had worked hard to raise money to help trafficking victims. He just didn’t understand that flying to Thailand to buy women from traffickers with cash would have all sorts of bad results, not to mention be dangerous for him and his team. Luckily, after a couple longs talks, he changed his plan and instead used to money to fund local Thai NGOs to identify and remove victims to safety and to train law enforcement to find and prosecute traffickers. He ended up helping hold traffickers accountable for their crimes, not encouraging them to commit more.

When people learn about the reality of modern-day slavery they often react passionately and emotionally. They want to ride in on a white horse with a stack of American dollars and free people. It’s not bad to have this emotional reaction, but to do the most good, you need a different approach. Making a donation, volunteering, and writing letters to the government may not feels as exciting as as sureptitious trip to Thailand to buy slaves and set them free, but it helps more people out of slavery while maintaining their humanity. And while it may not make you feel like a hero, the survivors who now have their freedom thanks to you might disagree.

Photo credit: amagill

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