Study: Online sexual child abuse reaches epidemic levels

Study: Online sexual child abuse reaches epidemic levels
Photo from UNICEFUSA.org

ONLINE Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children (OSAEC) in the Philippines, including live streaming of abuse, has reached epidemic levels, sustained by global demand and run like a “cottage industry.”

That is one of the major findings of a major new report by the anti-human trafficking charity Justice and Care, which is working with researchers from Dublin City University and De La Salle University, Manila.

Over the last two years, researchers have been working with government, law enforcement and other charities, among others, to better understand how OSAEC trafficking is happening in the Philippines and to address the environment in which it operates and thrives.

They found that the crime was made possible, thanks to local facilitators trafficking victims on the ground and passing information on how to set up similar “businesses,” and that many Western owned financial institutions and tech companies are being used to facilitate OSAEC.

Other key findings of the study include:

* The crime is widespread in both urban and rural areas.

* Mentoring takes place among traffickers as they pass on advice on how to set up, enable money transfer and attract foreigners who pay for OSAEC.

* In some instances, traffickers were previously victims of this crime -- creating a perpetual cycle of abuse.

* Convicted traffickers reported that the crimes were driven by economic necessity for some, as a source of “easy money” for others and primarily by demand from customers across Europe, other Western countries and parts of South Asia.

* Social media platforms, dating sites and adult cybersex sites are being used to initially engage with foreign customers.

* There is a huge disparity between the lengthy sentences received by traffickers in the Philippines (most commonly 15 years but in some instances life imprisonment) and foreign customers who are creating the demand for, and directing, these crimes and who often go unpunished.

The study, which was funded by Safe Online as part of the joint Tech Coalition Safe Online Research Fund initiative and International Justice Mission (IJM), makes a number of recommendations to help tackle the crime, including:

* A widespread education and community awareness raising plan within the Philippines is urgently needed to help people understand the harm caused by OSAEC and to dispel beliefs and fallacies that otherwise enable and sustain the crime in communities.

* Greater global regulation of the online platforms that enable the crime -- including online dating sites and adult webcam services -- is required.

* Tougher investigations, more prosecutions and harsher sentences are urgently needed for the foreign customers who create the demand.

* A step-up of regulation, detection and suspicious transaction reporting by the financial institutions which indirectly facilitate and profit from OSAEC, and the proactive financial intelligence disclosure of these suspicious transaction reports to law enforcement.

Nicole Munns, the International Systemic Change Director at Justice and Care, said urgent actions are needed to end this epidemic.

“Measures to tackle demand must be prioritized, attempts to address the online environment and payment system that enable OSAEC must be swiftly strengthened, and it is critical to double down on community intervention and prevention strategies that address the factors that sustain and perpetuate this awful crime,” said Munns.

According to Dr. Maggie Brennan, principal research investigator, and assistant professor of Psychology at Dublin City University, the report findings should be of deep concern to all who hold responsibility to combat this abuse -- including the financial service providers and tech companies whose platforms are being exploited by sexual offenders.

“Financial companies are inadvertently profiting from the many thousands of payments being made for child abuse on their platforms. These payments are destroying children’s lives. We must combat this crime at source and severely punish those who commission these crimes in Europe and elsewhere,” said Brennan.

Brennan added that financial services companies must step up interception of payments on their platforms. “While it means a different approach to intercepting other types of financial crime, and more resourcing, the crime is endemic and there is no more time to wait. With Ireland being the center for many tech industry and financial services operations in the European region, it holds significant potential to lead the way in responding to this issue.”

The report follows a study by the charity IJM, which estimated nearly half a million Filipino children were sexually abused -- as part of OSAEC crimes.

The executive director of its Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, John Tanagho, agreed that an urgent response is needed from tech and financial sector companies.

“Foreign offenders direct, produce, incite, and consume sexual abuse of young children in real time on popular and free video-chat and live streaming apps, with insufficient action by companies. IJM is proud to have meaningfully contributed to and funded this important new research and stands ready to help all sectors protect children from these heinous crimes,” Tanagho said. (PR)

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