Wed, Apr 17, 2019 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: International task force tackling child cybersex trafficking in the Philippines

Thomson Reuters Foundation, MANILA

The tip-off came from the FBI: details of an arrest in the US, the accused’s social media profiles and a host of photographs showing young Philippine girls engaged in sex acts.

Led by police in the Philippines, a new global task force to fight child sex abuse started dissecting the US citizen’s digital footprint in order to track down the exploited girls.

“Those images were very sexually explicit... Disturbing,” said Philippine National Police General William Macavinta, who heads the unit launched this year to combat cybersex trafficking — a form of modern slavery where children are abused over webcam.

“It was clear that we had to move fast to extract the children,” said Macavinta, whose country is considered by campaigners to be the epicenter of the fast-growing trade.

Three weeks later, British and Australian police assembled with their local counterparts just before dusk one evening and raided a slum located on fishing docks in the capital, Manila.

The task force did not find the alleged local offender, but rescued five girls — aged 10 to 13 — who had been groomed and directed to perform sex acts over the Internet by the American.

Charities have estimated that tens of thousands of girls in the Philippines are trapped in the sex trade, with a growing number abused online for global clients due to the country’s cheap Internet, high standard of English and widespread poverty.

The Southeast Asian nation received about 60,000 reports of online child sexual exploitation last year — up one-third on 2017 — said a US investigator working in the Philippines with the International Justice Mission (IJM), a non-governmental organization fighting trafficking.

From Australia and the US to Britain, major nations are boosting efforts to stop their citizens from fueling an illicit business believed to be spreading across Southeast Asia.

However, obstacles are aplenty.

Many victims are exploited by their own families and are unable or afraid to speak out, while the encrypted nature of modern technology makes criminals tough to track, police said.

“This hidden crime is very difficult to shut down,” Macavinta said, citing strict privacy laws that make it challenging for police to monitor suspects and make arrests without a warrant.

“Referrals from foreign law enforcement — that’s how we know these things [online child sex abuse cases] are happening,” he added.

The Philippine Internet Crimes Against Child Center was launched in February and is home to officials from the Australian Federal Police and the British National Crime Agency (NCA), as well as representatives from the IJM.

The task force has also forged links with authorities in the US, Canada, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands.

“Historically, there hadn’t been a lot of cooperation,” said Richard Stanford, a police detective heading up the Australian contingent, adding that different nations and local agencies had previously been working on cases “in ignorance of each other.”

Every report of online child sex abuse — raised in the Philippines or abroad — now goes to the task force, whose experts in online forensics, criminal investigation and child protection work hand-in-hand to track down offenders and their victims.

Australia had a moral and legal responsibility to tackle the crime in the Philippines, having provided a “disproportionate number of pedophiles to Southeast Asia,” Stanford said.

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