What is Operation Underground Railroad?

What is Operation Underground Railroad?
Sound of Freedom trailer

Operation Underground Railroad has been in the news recently as the movie Sound of Freedombecomes a surprising box office hit.

The film is based on Tim Ballard, who left Homeland Security roughly 10 years to found Operation Underground Railroad (OUR) - a group that works with local police to catch child sex traffickers in other countries.

On the group’s website they say that they “exist to rescue children from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.”

They also claim that their team “consists of highly experienced and extensively trained former law enforcement personnel, intelligence experts, U.S. diplomats, and military officers.”

But the group, and its founder, have consistently found themselves entangled in controversies.

It has been accused of having links to QAnon, embellishing its involvement in rescue operations, traumatising trafficked children, and not providing the care it promises to those they rescue.

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The group says it disavows conspiracy theories and has no connection to QAnon, but says it welcomes those who are part of the conspiracy because it has “allowed people to open their eyes,” according to Ballard.

But he added, “now it’s our job to flood the space with real information so the facts can be shared.” Despite this, Ballard has engaged with false theories such as claiming that furniture marketplace Wayfair was being used for child trafficking.

In 2020, an investigation by VICEfound that the organisation has often exaggerated its role in the rescues. The investigation heard from multiple law enforcement agencies that partnered with OUR that the group’s support was “insubstantial”.

An article written by Meg Conley for Slate, who participated in a raid to save trafficked kids in 2014, criticised the use of cameras as the raid took place, hoping to produce a TV show about OUR.

The article also reported that, despite the group’s promises of aftercare for the children it rescues, “the National Council for Children and Adolescents quickly discovered it didn’t have the capacity to handle the 26 girls rescued. They were released in less than a week.”

Others testified that the organisation had lost track of some of the other children.

But as Sound of Freedom brings in just under $50 million and OUR finds itself attracting more attention than expected, Ballard has parted ways with the group. Ballard has made no announcement of his departure but an OUR spokesperson said that he had “recently stepped away”.

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