Undercover missions help end child sex slavery
WITH eyes fixed on one in a million children she was determined to help, Fiona Berkin felt the weight of the sex slavery crisis.
Ms Berkin, CEO of Sunshine Coast-based organisation Destiny Rescue, was on an undercover mission to identify minors "working" in a Thai bar.
The true nature of this work was "unspoken", but Ms Berkin said three weeks later an anti-trafficking police raid shut down the venue.
It has not reopened, and the owners and managers now face serious jail time as Ms Berkin said more than ever, authorities were helping to eradicate this modern injustice.
Ms Berkin said Destiny Rescue has saved almost 5000 young girls from human trafficking since its inception 18 years ago.
In Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Nepal, the Dominican Republic and two undisclosed countries, undercover operatives conduct covert rescue missions to free children forced to offer their bodies to "customers".
Agents pose as customers to gain trust of the children being sold and when the time is right, they offer them a way out.
"Certainly not the first time around, (the children) say 'You are just another Westerner, possibly taking me to a worse place'," Ms Berkin said.
Ms Berkin explained often, particularly in Thailand, children "worked" in bars to support their families.
In the Dominican Republic, the victims may be orphaned refugees displaced in the Haiti earthquake.
Ms Berkin said these children, desperate to feed and fend for themselves, were "primed" for trafficking.
Since her appointment as CEO three months ago, Ms Berkin said she had been privileged to travel to Cambodia to one of the rescue houses where she met some of the survivors.
"I saw what difference Destiny Rescue, empowered by our donors, make," Ms Berkin said.
"I also experienced the dark side of this story, joining one of our undercover rescue teams in Thailand on a mission to identify minors working in the sex industry.
"The stories I heard from children working in establishments where they are required to offer customers their bodies are simply horrendous.
"These children could easily be our daughters and granddaughters.
"It's just unimaginable."
Ms Berkin said survivors were reintegrated into the community as soon as possible.
If this is not possible immediately, survivors are rehabilitated in Destiny Rescue's care or with partner organisations.
They are given education and training to be placed into appropriate educational institutions, or to find sustainable employment upon reintegration.
Ms Berkin said during this process a social worker was available to them every day if necessary.
She explained each rescue cost up to $1500, but hoped the community and businesses would get on board with Destiny Rescue's ambitious "birthday wish".
The charity celebrates 18 years next month and Ms Berkin said they hoped to raise enough funds to rescue 18 children a day throughout October.
Ms Berkin suggested businesses could show support through a staff or customer morning tea, a cocktail party or donate a percentage of sales to Destiny Rescue.
"We are heading towards 5000 rescues and we are extremely proud of that, but we have a long way to go, there's between one to two million children caught up in sexual slavery," she said.
Ms Berkin has taken overfrom Michelle Winser who led Destiny Rescue for the past six years.
She said the humanitarian crisis had constantly weighed on her conscious and subconscious in the months since.
"I tell you now I dream about it," Ms Berkin said.
"Everything I have done … has been leading me to this point, to give me the skills that I can go into a not for profit orgisation, and particularly Destiny Rescue.
"Every day it's always a mix of emotions; that total joy that you are getting out of bed and doing something worthwhile, but you hear these horrific stories, so your heart is tugging one way and another."
Ms Berkin's appointment comes after 20 years of climbing the corporate ladder.
She led the growth of Morris Corporation to a lucrative takeover by Sodexo which offers catering, facilities management and maintenance services for major mining and oil and gas firms in Australia.
She served on the Australian Mines and Minerals Association board of directors, mentored for the Women In Technology Board Readiness Program and the Australian Women in Resource Alliance.
Ms Berkin said she knew she had wanted to help humanity on some level since she was aged seven, and Destiny Rescue was the perfect opportunity.
Despite a level of "donor fatigue", Ms Berkin was confident more companies would support organisations such as Destiny Rescue.
"I think it is going to gain huge momentum in the next 15 plus years," she said.
"My vision is definitely to expand our donor base into the corporate arena, in the areas of workplace giving, corporate donations and support from philanthropists.
"Securing major grants and increasing our donor base in a very competitive market is going to be challenging, but without the support of our donors, we can't continue to do the work we do".