Campaigners say the Covid-19 lockdowns have created the perfect storm for an increase in child sexual exploitation online.
Out-of-school children and adult predators who spend more time at home and on the internet during the coronavirus pandemic are the “perfect storm” causing an increase in child sexual abuse online around the world.
Activists said on Wednesday that from slums in the Philippines to suburbs in Australia, cross-border crime has escalated as offenders take advantage of school closings and closures to reach children, either in person or via social media, the gaming sites and the dark web.
In Australia, federal police received more than 21,000 reports of child sexual abuse in the 12 months to June 30, an increase of over 7,000 cases from the previous year.
Their investigators also recorded a 136% increase in child sexual exploitation material online.
“Some of these dark websites go down because they don’t keep up with the amount of traffic,” said Paula Hudson, Australian Federal Police Superintendent.
She said police “directly attribute” the “incredible influx” to offenders and children who spend more time at home due to school closings and closures, with young people often left unattended while parents juggle the responsibilities of work and care.
“The Covid-19 lockdowns have created the perfect storm for the increase in the sexual exploitation of children online,” said John Tanagho of the International Justice Mission in Manila.
The Philippine government saw a 260% increase in reports of child abuse material online from March through May, as the country was strictly locked down. Unicef noted.
Investigators “even see Covid-specific child exploitation forums where (offenders) discuss opportunities that have arisen during the Covid period,” Hudson revealed, including one with 1,000 members.
In Indonesia, which, along with the Philippines, has become a global hotspot for child sexual abuse, about 20% of children interviewed by ECPAT, an international NGO working to end child exploitation, reported behavior predators online.
Police in West Java Province recently discovered a group on the popular LINE messaging app who facilitated “live nude shows” involving several minors.
Among them was a 14-year-old girl convinced to strip-tease when her parents thought she was doing her homework online in her bedroom.
The number of group members has tripled to 600 since the start of the pandemic.
“Parents need to be even more careful in monitoring their children’s online activities, as it may take a few minutes for them to become a perpetrator or a victim of online crimes,” said Criminal Division chief Teuku Rasya Gaddafi. “It’s all there on the Internet.
Former Australian cop Glen Hulley of the anti-trafficking organization Project Karma said pedophiles also bypass parents by using gaming platforms.
“What we have mainly seen during this lockdown period is that the perpetrators are trying to reach children in a popular application for children, such as online gaming platforms with chat functionality,” a- he declared.
Activists have reported adults posing as peers, famous YouTubers, or even celebrities like Justin Bieber.
“Once the initial interaction started, they asked them to chat on other platforms so that they could be in touch without any disruption to the game,” Hulley said.
It is not only children in developing countries who are victims of sexual abuse.
In recent months, Australian police have arrested 15 men accused of producing or sharing child pornography online and have identified 46 alleged victims, 16 of them in a single daycare.
They ranged from 16 months to 15 years, with an average age of eight.
Live broadcast of sexual violence
Online sexual exploitation of children is a demand-driven “crime of opportunity” from sex offenders, Tanagho said.
The abuse is often repeated regularly to create new material.
With jobs and income lost and more time spent at home due to strict virus measures, many victims in the Philippines are first abused by their own parents, who live stream the sexual violence for predators in wealthy western countries.
“Sexual abuse is directed, paid for and consumed live by child sex offenders around the world who do not need to leave the comfort of their homes,” Tanagho said.
Children are abused for an average of two years before being rescued, he added, but the trauma is long lasting.
Mellanie Olano, chief social worker at the International Justice Mission in Manila, told AFP: “It’s a bit chaotic every time we walk into the house where the abuse is taking place, the children are all crying.”
Young victims are often on high alert, experience hyperarousal, have trouble sleeping, have difficulty concentrating, and have difficulty controlling their emotions.
“Of course, because most abusers are parents (…) they are separated from their parents,” she added.
Massive global problem
The fight against the problem has been further complicated by the pandemic.
Before Australia closed its international borders to stop the spread of the virus, police routinely arrested suspected child molesters as they returned home on flights from Southeast Asia.
But as offenders have moved online in greater numbers, Hudson says police have followed them, working more closely with their international counterparts using virtual tools such as video conferencing.
“Certainly the Covid pandemic has not hindered anything, it has in fact increased our cooperation,” she said.
“The more we investigate and the more we move forward, the more offenders are revealed,” she added.
The Australia-based suspected child sexual abuse ring was dismantled after a denunciation by US authorities, who also arrested three Americans.
A network of suspected offenders has been identified in Europe, Asia, Canada and New Zealand, with police referring nearly 150 people to their counterparts in those regions.
Tanagho, however, is less optimistic that authorities are moving forward.
“This is a massive, massive and global problem… it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
In addition to greater law enforcement, Tanagho said tech companies need to do more to develop tools that could detect live abuse in action.
“If sex offenders and traffickers fear being detected by the platforms they use, if they fear being arrested… then they are much less likely to abuse children online,” he said. declared.
“Easy money or sexual gratification just isn’t worth capturing and sent to jail.”