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The Pandemic is Fanning the Flames of Cyber Sex Trafficking

Coronavirus has sparked an explosion in online abuse of children. With lockdowns trapping minors at home, exploitation by the adults who are meant to care for them has increased dramatically. What can be done to stop this horrible crime?

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Photo Credit: Women and Children Protection Center of the Philippine National Police
Photo Credit: Women and Children Protection Center of the Philippine National Police

Global law enforcement data strongly indicates a spike in the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC). A horrific side effect of the lockdowns has been that children are trapped at home for longer periods of time with their mothers or parents. For children who have been sexually abused by their own guardians for paying online sex offenders, this situation doesn’t bode well.

OSEC is skyrocketing across many countries in the Asia region in particular.  My home country of the Philippines, which has experienced one of the world’s longest lockdowns at 13 weeks and counting, remains the global epicentre of OSEC, reporting eight times more case referrals from global law enforcement agencies than any other country. With the Philippines receiving an estimated 300,000 reports of child sexual exploitation (of which OSEC is a subset) since March 2020 alone, compared to 76,561 during this timeframe in 2019, we can surmise a surge in OSEC activities during the same period. With such economic disparity between the Philippines and demand-side countries, a small amount of money converts into a big amount for traffickers in the Philippines. This is a crime of opportunity, which is made simpler by widespread internet access, the rise in mobile phone ownership and English language proficiency.

According to the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) the pandemic sent more than 1.5 billion children around the world home from school, leaving them prey to sexual predators. UNICEF estimates 1.8 million children are trafficked for sexual exploitation every year – but this does not include cybersex trafficking, which is harder to estimate because it is so often unreported. Indeed, OSEC is the darkest form of modern slavery, an offence made possible by technology and deemed a hidden crime because of the transient and real-time nature of live streams – little evidence remains after they end.


Who is involved?

OSEC is made even more gruesome because the majority of perpetrators, 87 per cent of cases, are the children’s own mothers. According to International Justice Mission (IJM) an organisation that helps rescue child victims and assists their transition to new lives, the number of women arrested globally for arranging this abuse has surged alarmingly since the pandemic began this year. What would possess a mother to sell her own child? “Traffickers often rationalize their crimes by saying they are not causing physical harm to their child because the abuse happens online,” says Sam Inocencio, National Director of IJM Philippines. 

The average age of OSEC victims is 11. The majority, but not all, are girls. And without intervention, the abuse in most cases lasts an average of four years. Most of these online paedophiles are men living in Australia, Europe and North America. Before the internet, customers had to travel to the Philippines to purchase sex with a minor. Now, predators can enter the homes of children through a basic internet connection. They no longer need to travel to abuse children, and instead can simply abuse them online from the comfort of their homes. 

Photo Credit: Women and Children Protection Center of the Philippine National Police

Technology and International Cooperation

New technology is being developed to enable OSEC streaming to be detected. Companies such as Microsoft have adapted its PhotoDNA image search tool to enable it to find videos of child sexual abuse embedded in other video content. Google has invested in technology that would allow them to monitor live streams and flag any potential inappropriate behaviour. Such technology, however, is not wildly available yet. Streaming platforms are aware of the problem of OSEC, but many are more concerned with ensuring privacy for their customers, rather than putting in place measures that might be seen as intruding on that security.   

In the meantime, there is a very real and urgent need to strengthen laws and penalties in Western countries and raise awareness of the realities of OSEC. This is a global issue that will only be resolved with a very clear and coordinated approach. Despite the fact the pandemic has accentuated the problem of OSEC and made rescues more complicated, collaborations between IJM, the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Centre and other international authorities such as Interpol and foreign law enforcement agencies have helped crack down on perpetrators in the Philippines and in other parts of Asia.

Rescue and Aftercare

In May 2020, numerous rescues were conducted in the Philippines such as this case in Mindanao province, where 12 children and a teenager were freed from cybersex trafficking. Near Manila, a 28-year-old mother was arrested in her house in Taguig City for a similar crime; all the children rescued were her own offspring from two different fathers — three boys (ages 3, 10 and 13 years) and four girls (ages 3 months, 1, 9, and 12 years). The victims were taken to aftercare shelters and are now receiving trauma-informed interventions, including 14-days in isolation as a COVID-19 precaution for them and the children in the shelters.

The psychological scars on the children who suffer such abuse are long lasting. They are left deeply traumatized by abuse and a family member’s betrayal. The authorities need specialised training on how to care for young survivors of cybersex trafficking. So how do children affected by such trauma begin to heal?  

One possible step is a reconciliation meeting. This is an opportunity for the offending family member, if they are truly repentant, to apologise and seek forgiveness from the children. This is critical for any reconciliation. Often child victims feel guilt that their abuser is going to jail, as if it were the child’s fault. So, when the perpetrator acknowledges that the fault is entirely theirs and apologises sincerely, this is significant for the child’s healing process. Before this meeting – which is facilitated by a trained social worker, sometimes together with a psychologist – a child’s readiness to face the offending parent is assessed. The child also undergoes preparatory sessions to ensure their best interests remain top priority. 

Aftercare also involves placing children in a specialised shelter for some time while a reunification can be arranged with non-offending families. If this is not possible, a loving foster home is another option, rather than an institution, which is the last resort. Organisations such as IJM partner with other NGOs and with government welfare organisations to improve the continuum of care provided for survivors. “Ultimately, our hope is for all survivors to truly live in freedom by providing a support network for them to overcome their trauma,” says Inocencio. 

What can be done to stop OSEC?

The war against OSEC should be fought on multiple fronts but it cannot be won unless we arm ourselves with the right tools to combat it effectively.  We need to:

  1. Spread awareness and educate ourselves and others about OSEC. The best defence against crimes that prey on innocent is knowledge and educations. Learn and talk about this difficult topic, make others aware that it exists. It is important that awareness raising campaigns be tailored to several audiences: parents and teachers need to be more aware about the dangers of the internet, children need to learn how to navigate it safely, perpetrators too need to be made aware that this is a grave crime with very serious consequences.  
  2. Put an end to Impunity. It will require more effective coordinated action from multiple parties to keep children safe online. The international justice system needs to put an end to impunity by arresting and prosecuting perpetrators. Perpetrators need to live in fear that at any moment the police will find them and hold them accountable under the law. This is a huge step in preventing such crimes from increasing.
  3. Support organisations that fight OSEC. There are many well run NGOs working tirelessly to put an end to OSEC. Do your research and reach out to them to offer support. Some examples are: IJM, Destiny Rescue, Hagar International. 

Now more than ever, we need to take concerted action to break the cycle of online sexual exploitation and protect children from this gruesome form of modern slavery.

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