Rosie* (whose name has been changed for anonymity) is an 11-year-old girl with a smile that lights up a room. She dreams of getting a good education that will facilitate an upstanding career. But Rosie is not like other little girls. She was rescued, along with her sisters and younger cousins, from an appalling cybersex trafficking operation in the Philippines with the help of International Justice Mission (IJM).
Rosie never speaks of the abuse, but her teenage sisters have detailed the odious story of how their mother would force them to participate in sex shows – streamed live over the internet for foreign men to watch. Their mother has since been arrested and charged.
Tens of thousands of children in the Philippines are estimated to be trapped in the sex trade, with a growing number abused online for an international audience, due to the country’s cheap internet, high standard of English, accessible money transfer services, and widespread impoverishment. The tropical destination has become a hotspot for depraved online sexual predators from Western places such as the USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia.
IJM is the world’s largest international anti-slavery organisation that works globally to combat slavery, trafficking, and other forms of violent abuse. In the Philippines, the organisation has worked unremittingly with local government and law enforcement to find, rescue, and rehabilitate children from cybersex assaults, and to hold perpetrators accountable.
David Westlake, CEO of International Justice Mission UK said: “Online sexual exploitation of children is a form of sex trafficking which was unimaginable before the digital age. Whereas before, Western customers would have to physically travel to the Philippines to abuse children, now paedophiles and predators, anywhere in the world, can go online and wire a secure payment to an adult who sets up a live “show”. Boys and girls – some under 2 years old – are abused or forced to perform sex acts in front of a live webcam for paying customers.
“Unlike bars or brothels with a permanent address, children suffering online sexual exploitation can be moved to and abused in any location with an Internet connection and a webcam, or just a mobile phone.”
The FBI estimates that at any given time, there are 750,000 adults looking to abuse children in some 40,000 public chat rooms around the globe. And according to UNICEF, the Philippines is “the epicentre” of the live-stream sexual abuse trade and the “number one global source of child pornography.”
In 2018, the Southeast Asian nation received about 60,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation – a staggering three times more than in 2017. Data from IJM showed that as many as 80% of cybersex victims in the Philippines are underage and of those, half were 12 years old or younger. The youngest reported child to have been rescued was a 3-month-old baby.
“It will take a strong, united, and closely coordinated response involving international law enforcement teams, NGOs, and global governments to fight and end this gruesome crime today,” Westlake explained.
“When IJM started working in the Philippines in 2000, we partnered with the government to stop brothel owners and traffickers from exploiting children in the commercial sex industry—rescuing children from bars that sold them for sex and bringing perpetrators to justice. Studies have shown the number of children available for purchase on streets and in bars once notorious for sex trafficking plummeted between 75% and 86% in the cities where IJM worked to equip the police to tackle this devastating crime.”
Disturbingly, the culprits who conduct and perpetuate the abuse are frequently trusted adults such as family members. The children are often coerced into the reprehensible acts by their own parents, who tell them that it is harmless since it is being only being shown online. The abuse can range from posing in front of the camera to engaging in a sexual act with another minor–or even an adult.
“When justice systems are equipped to protect vulnerable children and abusers are held to account, perpetrators realise that they can’t get away with their crimes and exploitation becomes too risky. That’s when the problem decreases,” Westlake added.
“This crime is dark and complicated, but as the justice system in the Philippines is equipped to protect vulnerable children, and international law enforcement invest in tackling this crime, cybersex trafficking can be stopped.”
In February, the Philippines Internet Crimes Against Child Center (PICACC) was launched and is supported by officials from the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Britain’s National Crime Agency (NCA), and the IJM. The task force also has connections with authorities in the US, Canada, Germany. Sweden, and the Netherlands.