In Pursuit of Justice

Published in Metro Society magazine, July 2014

Once Andrey Sawchenko talks about justice for victims of human trafficking, passion and urgency resonate in voice. “It matters for people who are, desperate for rescue today, and survivors who need hope for a new life. We get that for real people – today.”

Sawchenko is National Director of International Justice Mission (IJM), a global organization that protects the poor from violence. The organization is composed of lawyers, investigators, social workers, community activists and other professionals at work in nearly 20 communities in the developing world. They partner with local authorities to rescue victims of violence, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors, and strengthen justice systems.

He discovered IJM when he was at the University of Washington, School of Law and part of the Christian Legal Society in 1998. “We had a conference and IJM’S President, Gary Haugen, was one of the presenters.  I was just a law student, but I thought that what Gary was presenting as a possibility was really exciting, and it seemed right to me that when the Bible said that we should seek justice we should actually be doing that in the most practical sense.” After completing law school, he interned in the Manila field office.

After his internship, Sawchenko returned to the US where he practiced law for three years in Seattle. But the desire to pursue the work of justice had seized him, and he returned to IJM. He went to Thailand and led a team dedicated to fighting sex trafficking. After another three years, he found himself back in the Philippines, where the staff now tackles cases of child sexual abuse and the sex trafficking of minors.

There are currently three field offices. The Manila office was established in 2001, and provided IJM’s first ever conviction, that of a rapist who had assaulted a young girl. The Cebu office followed in 2007, where they launched Project Lantern, a study that put to the test the idea that when anti-trafficking laws are enforced by well-trained and equipped police and courts, minors would be better protected from traffickers. External auditors found that the availability of minors for sex decreased by 79% after four years of partnership with local authorities. The latest office, opened in 2012, is in Pampanga.

IJM has been lauded as one of the ten non-profits “making a difference” by U.S. News and World Report. The model that it has developed to combat everyday violence has proven to be so effective that it is recognized by the U.S State Department, the World Economic Forum and leaders around the globe. Its effectiveness lies in its specificity and willingness to engage different sectors of society. “Our work couldn’t be more practical, and the connections with local communities and organizations more necessary. It takes collaboration between all kinds of agencies for just one victim to be rescued, restored, and for justice to be achieved,” he said.

“One of the things we learned over the past few years is that dedicated law enforcement focused on a specific issue, like human trafficking, are more effective.” He emphasized. “We’ve been partnering with the Philippine National Police (PNP) to establish, train and deploy police anti-trafficking units, and these units have been effective in intervening on behalf of trafficking victims in Manila, Cebu and Pampanga. We’re excited to be partnering with the PNP as they look to expand that model into other areas.”

He added that, “When victims are rescued, they’re brought to police stations. Unfortunately, police stations are not the most therapeutic environment for newly rescued victims, so several years ago IJM Cebu partnered with the DSWD to create a special place for victims to go to immediately after being rescued. Now, the DSWD is replicating that model in something they’re calling ‘SafeSpace’ right here in the national capital region. We’re really excited to be able to partner with them for that excellent project, and we believe that it will be a model for various regions here in the Philippines and even other countries around the world.”

Local communities also have a part to play in the fight against human trafficking, which IJM acknowledges and encourages. “One of the best opportunities for people in the community to get involved is to participate in activities leading up to the International Day Against Trafficking on December 12. We will be working very closely with the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking, the Philippine Interfaith Movement Against Human Trafficking and other civil society groups to raise our voices and say that human trafficking is absolutely unacceptable and we won’t stand for it.”

The work Sawchenko is engaged in is serious and intense, but he has his own haven to retreat to: his wife and daughter. They are currently based in Cebu and have embraced the local culture easily. He knows a smattering of words in Bisaya, and without realizing it, has adopted some Pinoy quirks. “When I go back to the US or Canada, I find myself pointing with my lips or raising my eyebrows. Sometimes that kind of stuff can get you in trouble in some places,” he laughed.

He also enjoys Filipino food. “I love lechon. But my other favorite Filipino food is kinilaw. I also like utang bisaya and tinola. It’s delicious. I do not like balut.” He shared. “I love nature. In Cebu, you can go up to the mountains. Sometimes we just go out of town to breathe some fresh air, run around and fly a kite. Or you can go to the ocean and it’s pretty great to be able to ride around in a little boat and jump into the sea to do some snorkeling or diving.”

After seven years in the Philippines, Sawchenko is still ready and willing to continue the fight – this time, against labor trafficking in India. Leaving the country, while exciting, won’t be easy for Sawchenko and his family, especially his daughter (who was born here). “We love living in the Philippines and it’s really been home to us. Everything just fell into place when we came in. The best thing about the Philippines is the Filipinos. That’s an un-artful quote, but it’s true.”

“When you first move aboard, the things that strike you are the differences; how everybody is so different, how people’s perspectives and the way they communicate and understand and even use their eyebrows are so different.” He smiled.

“But after you live abroad longer, you realize that actually, we aren’t so different. The fundamental things about who we are as people are the same, everywhere. We all want enough food to eat. We all want our kids to be okay. We all want to be safe. We all want to be loved. We’re pretty much the same. That’s the thing to remember.”