Global law enforcement is warning of an unintended consequence of lockdown: an increase in online sexual exploitation of children.
Recognising the real risk here in Scotland, Police Scotland launched a ‘#GetHelpOrGetCaught’ campaign targeting potential perpetrators who might be tempted to pay to watch child sexual exploitation online and encouraging them to seek help.
Meanwhile, Europol have warned they are “very concerned about the rise of child sexual abuse online”. observing that “[a]ctivity around the distribution of child sexual exploitation material online appears to be on the increase”.
“Cybersex trafficking” is one particularly distressing form of online sexual exploitation that poses a major risk. It sees Western predators, from places including Scotland, pay to live-steam the sexual abuse of children over the internet. Whilst the abuse is watched remotely, what the children endure is real abuse in real time.
The Philippines is a global cybersex trafficking hotspot and there are concerns about increases there. International Justice Mission (IJM) has helped recue more than 600 children from cybersex trafficking, almost half of whom are under 12 years old.
Many children are left deeply traumatised.
As a father of two young children, this is a crime that I find extremely difficult to stomach. Even talking about it is difficult – but I also know that people like you and me need to know, so that we can be part of the solution.
And I’m inspired by my colleagues at IJM who, together with Philippines police and UK NCA partners, are tirelessly working to find and rescue children who are being abused.
My colleagues at IJM Philippines have supported authorities in the rescues of hundreds of children and 88 convictions of cybersex traffickers. They won’t give up. They also shared that in more than half of cybersex trafficking cases, parents, relatives or close family friends are the facilitators of the live-streamed child sexual abuse – the very same people that children are locked down with during COVID-19.
The pandemic is creating a dangerous mix for cybersex trafficking: Filipino children are locked in with their abusers and offending westerners are locked in at home with access to the internet and everyday technology, like social media and live-streaming apps. Furthermore, schools are closed in the Philippines which means children are less able to report abuse to teachers, friends or neighbours. The ingredients for a sinister new couch economy are all present.
This is – of course – difficult reading. Most of us will be feeling deeply saddened but it’s essential that we do not give up or lose hope. Instead, we have a choice – we can choose to be part of the stopping the abuse.
The internet can be used to abuse children or it can also be used to raise our voices to fight for the protection of children at risk of cybersex trafficking, to make sure that they’re not forgotten and to ask global governments and authorities to continue to invest in protecting them.
£20 can be used to purchase a child abuse show, or it can be used to stop it.
Today, I’d love you to join our fight to stop cybersex trafficking. IJM are currently running an emergency appeal: every gift given today at ijmuk.org/child-abuse-online will be doubled. Please help us raise enough for 20 rescue operations, so we can find and free children.
I wanted to finish this piece with hope. Last month, I saw a letter that a young woman called Joy sent to our IJM Philippines team. First abused aged ten, Joy endured years of abuse at the hands of her trafficker, until IJM and police rescued her. She wrote to us saying “Writing this message makes me cry, not because I am sad but tears of joy.” She wanted to say thank you to the team and especially to her IJM social worker, who had helped her to overcome the trauma.
She let us know that she is about to graduate university – something she said she had never dreamed would be possible – and she wanted to encourage us not to give up, to keep fighting for children like her.
Right now, children like Joy are more at risk than ever. But it is possible to find children, rescue them and hold their abusers to account.
There’s never been a more urgent time to help stop cybersex trafficking.
Andrew Bevan, Scotland Director at IJM UK.