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Destiny Rescue founder Tony Kirwan.

Fighting against the child sex trade, one kid at a time

TONY Kirwan sits in a karaoke bar in Thailand, sipping beer and chatting with a prostitute sitting next to him.

Having been brought up in a church environment, not being a big drinker and having a quiet personality means singing karaoke on stage and letting a prostitute try to coerce him to pay for sex is a tough situation. But he tells himself he has to get over it.

He is, after all, there for one purpose: to rescue a child who has been forced into the sex trade.

About 10 nights a month, Mr Kirwan gives up time from his family to go undercover, pretending to seek prostitutes.

He looks out for ones he believes are under age.

 

 

 

He doesn't touch them or let them touch him; instead he talks to them, tries to find out their age by asking a variety of subtle questions.

And if he discovers they are a child, he works on establishing a trust in the hope that one day the child will agree to being rescued.

Mr Kirwan has a team of rescue workers who do the same thing in countries across the world.

They are part of a group called Destiny Rescue, which Mr Kirwan founded.

Its purpose is to free children from sexual exploitation and human trafficking and to help them rehabilitate in rescue homes.

At the moment, Destiny Rescue saves children in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines and is just starting to branch into India.

 

 

Destiny Rescue.
Destiny Rescue. contributed

 

Mr Kirwan, who spoke to Weekend magazine while in Australia recently, said the situation in India was one of the ugliest he had ever seen. About 27,000 children are sold every hour in India.

The youngest child Destiny Rescue has rescued from the sex trade was from India. She was just four.

Mr Kirwan said most people did not realise how bad the child sex trade was overseas.

"I think if the average person knew about this problem, I think everybody (would) want to do something to fix it," he said.

He said those who did know about it often turned a blind eye, probably because it was too confronting.

He also said it was not considered a major problem Australians faced. But it is.

Destiny Rescue's international marketing and business director Thomas Jones said Australians had a tendency to think human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children was an "Asian" problem.

"But it does affect us because part of our national identity overseas, particularly Australians, is that we're seen as sex tourists," he said.

Mr Jones said one way to start conquering the problem was to get Australians to think twice before seeing a sex show in Thailand or Bali.

He said watching these shows reinforced a situation many women were forced into.

"She's not there because she enjoys it," he said.

Mr Jones said it came back to the meaning behind White Ribbon Day and men becoming more responsible and being held accountable for their actions. He said mates should be able to tell each other that seeing a sex show while overseas was not okay - it's not part of "the culture".

Mr Kirwan did not turn away when he first heard about the child sex exploitation problem.

 

 

Tony Kirwan, founder of Destiny Rescue.
Tony Kirwan, founder of Destiny Rescue.

 

A church service he attended while volunteering in Thailand had just finished and people were mingling when he overheard someone talk about how a man had been offered a child for $US400 in Bangkok, to do whatever he wanted with.

"For whatever reason that just really rocked me," Mr Kirwan said.

"I'd never heard in my whole life of people selling people...we've all seen movies where there's slaves. But that was meant to have ended 200 years ago."

Mr Kirwan's family moved back to Australia after their stint volunteering and Mr Kirwan started looking for a charity or not-for-profit organisation that he could assist to tackle the issue.

But he couldn't find anything in that niche. So he decided to set up his own.

Destiny Rescue was launched in October, 2001 - three weeks after the September11 attacks.

A lot of people told Mr Kirwan that it was the wrong time to launch. But he still went ahead with it.

Destiny Rescue started in Mozambique in Africa, and then branched into Thailand in 2003.

At first, Destiny Rescue focused on food and education for widows and orphans.

Mr Kirwan has always wanted to focus on tackling child sex exploitation and human trafficking but needed to learn the ropes first.

 

Innocence abroad ... slavery was meant to have ended 200 years ago, Tony Kirwan says.
Innocence abroad ... slavery was meant to have ended 200 years ago, Tony Kirwan says. Annika Salisbury

 

Four years after the launch - in 2005 - he felt it was time to go in and rescue children from the sex trade.

The rescues started with him and two other men.

"There was no how-to manual of how to rescue a kid out of the sex trade, so it was trial and error," Mr Kirwan said.

For the first six months, they did not rescue one child.

Mr Kirwan said it came down to trust - they were offering children an escape but the children did not want to leave.

"The kids just didn't believe us, because why would they? They didn't know us, didn't trust us. And people that they had trusted totally were the ones that had betrayed them to get them into this yucky environment."

But once they worked on building up the trust, they started seeing great outcomes.

Mr Kirwan said their rescues were very "under the radar".

"We're not a bunch of Rambos kicking doors down, as fun as that might be," he said.

"We try and get in and out without the brothel owners realising who we are and what we're trying to achieve.

"But sometimes they do work it out and that's when the risks change a little bit. Almost every rescue operation, nothing bad really happens. But just occasionally it gets interesting."

Another aspect of the rescues is getting brothels shut down. While undercover, the rescuers gather as much intelligence as possible to give to authorities, which sometimes prompts sex businesses to be raided and shut down.

Destiny Rescue has about 30 rescue workers around the world.

It also has about 25 to 30 rescue homes, where children go once they are rescued. Here they get counselling and find a way back to school or into vocational training and employment.

It is hoped the children will be able to leave after six months but this is not always the case.

Since it began, Destiny Rescue has saved about 1600 children from the sex trade. By 2020, the organisation is hoping to have saved 100,000 children.

Mr Kirwan said it was an ambitious goal, but it was achievable. He said they just needed the right partners and funding.

He wants to end child exploitation in his lifetime - to ensure his children have a better world to live in.

"I'm not arrogant to think that Destiny Rescue is going to do it on their own," he said.

"(But) I want to be out the front leading the charge."