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A destiny to save children’s lives

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A destiny to save children’s lives

A charity born and based on the Sunshine Coast has rescued thousands around the world from human trafficking. WORDS: Linda Read.

This is not a pretty story. It’s about some of the darkest parts of the human psyche, and some of the worst crimes imaginable.

The human trafficking trade and the sexual exploitation of children are topics outside the realm of most of our everyday lives.

For many of the world’s children, however, these unimaginable concepts are real-life nightmares. Unfortunately, thanks to the explosion of technology, these crimes are also on a rapid rise.

However, there is a sliver of light in the darkness.

Not-for-profit charity Destiny Rescue, founded and based on the Sunshine Coast, has made a sizeable dent in the number of children being trafficked and sold for sexual exploitation by rescuing them from horrific situations and helping to rebuild their lives.

Since its foundation in 2001, the organisation has rescued 14,500 individuals (mostly children) from brothels, red-light districts and sexually abusive situations around the world.

It is staffed by more than 250 volunteers and employees.

The rescue work is multifaceted.

Destiny Rescue works with international border forces, governments and federal police.

Agents often work undercover to gather evidence to build a case of child exploitation, which can lead to raids in some cases. In fact, Destiny Rescue is one of the few organisations internationally to conduct direct rescues, where trained rescue agents go into establishments and remove children.

The team also conducts border rescues, intercepting and rescuing people from being trafficked across land borders.

‘Survival’ rescues involve working with children from impoverished communities, often in child-led households, who are selling themselves to put food on the table.

The agency works to get these children out of those situations and into what is calls a ‘pathway of freedom’.

With operations in 12 countries across three continents – Asia, Central and South America, and Africa – Destiny Rescue continues to fight for children’s freedom from sexual exploitation. It also aims to raise public awareness of the prevalence of the industry, and to work with governments, including our own, to strengthen laws and regulations.

Destiny Rescue CEO Paul Mergard says that more than a million children worldwide are sold into the “fast-moving” global sex trade yearly.

Seventy per cent of the world’s children who are trafficked for sex are on Australia’s doorstep in Asia. It’s a region Mr Mergard describes as “a hotbed” of the trade, and an easily accessible destination for Australians, who unfortunately comprise a large portion of offenders in that area.

“That’s where we tend to find a lot of Australians will go to exploit children,” he tells My Weekly Preview.

Mr Mergard references a 2023 study by sociologist Professor Michael Salter, from the University of New South Wales, called Identifying and understanding child sexual offending behaviour and attitudes among Australian men.

Many of the study’s findings are confronting: one-in-10 Australian men have reported having sexual feelings towards a child; and one in 10 of those have said that they have sexually offended against children.

“It’s incredibly disturbing,” Mr Mergard says.

“What we certainly are tending to find is that it will start online on the internet – people sitting at home on their computer or phone, and then they travel overseas and they exploit overseas, and then they come back home.

“Often, once someone starts contact offending, it kind of grows from there. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon.”

Some of the dedicated agents who perform the rescues are from a law-enforcement background, although this is not always the case.

Mr Mergard describes them as “a fairly diverse mix of people”.

Many of the agents are citizens of the countries in which the rescue work is taking place, which also has the added bonus of job creation in impoverished countries.

In Nepal, for example, the agents intercepting potential traffickers on the border comprise a “whole army of Nepalese women”. Mr Mergard describes them as “fierce border agents”.

“Some of them have been trafficked themselves, or they’re social workers, or they might have a law-enforcement background,” he says.

“In 2022, we did something like 23,000 interviews in Nepal, and rescued 920 individuals that were being trafficked across that border.

“If we’re in Thailand, we tend to have our western team go [undercover] into the bars that Aussies and Americans and Kiwis and Brits would go into.

“But then there are the places that the Thais predominantly go, so our Thai team would go into those [because] they can speak the language fluently.

“It’s pretty varied, actually, the type of people that end up going into the work.”

One of the traits all the agents have in common, however, is a deep desire to make a positive difference to the lives of exploited children.

“There’s a real sense of calling, for most of our team, to really feel like you were, in a sense, called to do this kind of work, because it’s certainly not for everybody,” Mr Mergard says.

Mr Mergard can speak from experience. With an unlikely background as an accountant, he was drawn to aid and development work after studying a post-graduate qualification in international development. That led him to work in some of the world’s most impoverished communities, which launched his 24-year career in the field.

“My initial foray into aid and development work was more about poverty alleviation and working with impoverished communities in Africa predominantly in those early years,” he says. “When I became aware of the issue of human trafficking, I investigated that myself more and spent more time in it, and then I guess you just see stuff.

“You see what happens to people when they are treated as something that is to be bought and sold, and there’s something that rises up in you that says: ‘This is not right, and we need to do something about it’.

“I spent a fair bit of time in the red-light districts of India, and met people that absolutely inspired me – women that had been rescued from the sex trade.

“I felt super challenged by their resilience and their ability to overcome [their situation].

“I guess I felt that real calling. I’ve seen way too much, and I think that we can do something about the problem.

“I think we see the worst of humanity and we see the best in humanity.

“For me, I’m continually inspired by the kids we’ve been able to rescue.

“When you see them on their own two feet and overcoming what the world threw at them, it’s actually incredibly rewarding.”

Mr Mergard’s experience is similar to that of Destiny Rescue founder and now international president Tony Kirwan,

who overheard two men in a bar in Thailand talking about exploiting a young girl in 2001.

“Tony kind of thought, ‘Well, someone needs to do something about that’, and he heard that little voice saying, ‘Well, you’re someone: go do something about it’,” Mr Mergard says.

While Destiny Rescue’s work is impressive, it is also relentless.

Mr Mergard warns there is much more to be done.

Securing funding remains an ongoing challenge. Fundraising is relentless, as Destiny Rescue relies on private funding.

The organisation is hoping for government funding in the future.

“We could probably double the number of kids we rescue overnight if we had the funding to do it,” Mr Mergard says.

“We don’t have any shortage of finding kids to rescue – our biggest challenge as an organisation is having the resources to rescue more kids. We dream of the day when we’re not talking about 3000 rescues a year. We’re talking about 6000 or 10000 rescues a year. And that comes because you’ve got a whole heap of generous people who say, ‘We’re going to play our part, whether it be big or small – we just get to play our part in rescuing kids’.”

Go to destinyrescue.org.au/donate/.

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