Photography supplied by Lift International
Human trafficking is a term we rarely hear of in this country. But the reality is that, right now, about 24.9 million people are enslaved in forced labour. Of this, 4.8 million are victims of forced commercial sexual exploitation. That’s about the population of New Zealand.
Human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world, generating hundreds of billions of dollars. But when three Kiwis became aware of this horrific trade, they decided to do whatever it took to tackle the crime of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice.
One summer’s day in 2012 at Waihi Beach in New Zealand, Justin and Carolyn Boswell and Kiwi police investigator Daniel Walker put plans in place to launch their first mission in Bangkok, Thailand. They deployed an experienced law enforcement investigator to work with a team to identify and assist women trafficked from Africa. The mission was successful, the women were repatriated and then reunited with their families. An organisation was born.
LIFT International (formerly, Nvader) started as an investigative team with an emphasis on removing trafficking victims from slavery and holding offenders accountable.
Today, it has grown to include strengthening law enforcement and protecting victims from exploitation.
LIFT International works in collaboration with Tearfund New Zealand and since 2011, 258 offenders have been arrested; 138 perpetrators have been given convictions, NZ $995,000 of victim compensation ordered and 459 victims removed from harm. Panit* is one of them.
Panit* is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. His mum died when he was five and his dad died a few years later. Panit* had no family left to care for him. He would stay with friends, sleep at the video game store or just on the street. He was homeless for a year. During his time of vulnerability, several men sexually abused him. They would lure him with money and lollies. He eventually found help through Tearfund’s partner LIFT International. Panit* received the justice he deserved. His offender got 16 years in jail and he was awarded NZ $2,500.
Another one of LIFT’s cases involved five Thai girls, all underage, found working in a karaoke bar, being sold for sex. These girls came from broken families with nowhere to go, no one to rely on. LIFT International’s social workers helped these girls recover after being trafficked. After cases like these close and the survivors return home, many young men and women face the same futures as they did before – a lack of education and no job prospects.
The LIFT Life fund is in place to support survivors, like the five Thai girls, to pursue educational and vocational training. The girls were looked after by LIFT International even beyond their return home.
Most trafficking victims are girls, but boys like Panit* can also be victims of the trade. One of LIFT’s biggest cases was Operation Blackwrist in 2017. It was here that Kiwis Carolyn and Justin were instrumental in working alongside Interpol and other international agencies on a case involving 63,000 online child predators in 137 countries worldwide. A Thai man was grooming boys from the age of six to 14 years old, offering them lollies, internet access and games to get them into his home. Once he earned their trust, he sexually abused them and took photos and videos, threatening to hurt them if they told anyone. He was running an illicit business online, selling child sexual abuse material and making thousands of dollars a week. There were more than 600 people in 60 countries around the world who were buying and downloading this sexually explicit illegal material. LIFT International’s investigative team worked to identify victims and collect evidence. The offender was charged with more than 40 charges, including child sexual abuse and human trafficking. After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to 70 years in jail. So far, nine victims have been identified and LIFT’s attorney represented five of them in court. They were each awarded NZ $23,000 in compensation from their offender. This operation will lead to hundreds of perpetrators being identified and prosecuted by law enforcement agencies across the globe. The shutdown of this website will also mean that hundreds of children will be prevented from becoming victims of online exploitation.
When Justin, Carolyn and Daniel sat down all those years ago at Waihi Beach with nothing but a dream to end human trafficking, they never could imagine the wild ride it would take them on. After five years with the organisation, Daniel Walker is now working at Kathmandu leading the corporate responsibility team and Carolyn and Justin are finishing up in Thailand this year and heading back to New Zealand. But all of them have left their legacy and will not stop advocating for the millions of people without a voice.
You can lend your voice too. Tearfund New Zealand partners with LIFT International to bring freedom to victims of human trafficking and exploitation. Every donation helps these survivors get justice and the lives they deserve.
*All images and names have been changed to protect the identity of victims and survivors.