Coronavirus fuels cybersex trafficking fears for children in Southeast Asia

By Nanchanok Wongsamuth and Matt Blomberg, Thomson Reuters Foundation
File Photo: An event is staged to raise awareness over sex trafficking in Manila, Philippines.

By Nanchanok Wongsamuth and Matt Blomberg

BANGKOK/PHNOM PENH, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cybersex traffickers are likely to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to target more children across Southeast Asia for online sexual abuse, child rights activists said on Thursday.

The global spread of cheap, high-speed internet and the rise in mobile phone ownership has fuelled cybersex trafficking in recent years, with children from Thailand to the Philippines being exploited over livestreams for paying clients worldwide.

At least 165 countries have shut schools due to the COVID-19 outbreak, impacting more than 1.5 billion children who will have more time to spend online, leaving them prey to sexual predators, said the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF).

UNICEF estimates 1.8 million children are sex trafficked every year - but this does not include cybersex trafficking.

"Spending more time online may heighten the risk of grooming, predators trying to meet children and an increase of self-generated images, as well as cyberbullying," Rachel Harvey, an advisor for UNICEF, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) - which has trained authorities in Cambodia and the Philippines to tackle cybersex trafficking - this week issued a statement warning about the increased risk of online abuse due to school closures.

In the Philippines - considered to be the epicentre of the live-stream sex abuse trade - activists are concerned about a spike in exploitation as many children are abused at home by their own relatives, who can earn up to $100 per broadcast.

"Because people are locked down, possibilities (for online sex exploitation) are high," said Evelyn Pingul, communications director for International Justice Mission (IJM) Philippines.

"Criminal minds can take advantage of the situation," she said, urging communities to be vigilant against such abuse.

In Thailand, the Internet Crimes Against Children police-led taskforce said it had been receiving reports of online sex abuse on a daily basis, with victims as young as eight years old.

The taskforce last year said Thai cybersex traffickers were targeting teenage boys from wealthy families, often posing as girls before persuading them to film themselves masturbating.

Campaigners in neighbouring Cambodia said they had seen a rise in online sex abuse since schools there closed last week.

"Child sex offenders online are taking advantage of this situation to get in touch with, groom and lure children to sexual activities," said Samleang Seila, director of the child protection charity Action Pour Le Enfants (APLE). (Reporting by Nanchanok Wongsamuth @nanchanokw and Matt Blomberg @blombergMD; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)