Covid-19 travel restrictions, far from ceasing sexual exploitation of children in tourism, have made it easier for perpetrators to offend. Child abuse in Southeast Asia has only gone up since borders started closing last March.
In tourism-reliant communities, household incomes have been decimated while out-of-school children find themselves spending more time online – exposed to unprecedented dangers of online sex tourism.
Businesses should take accountability by investing in prevention tools, actively collaborating with law enforcement investigating cases, but also supporting vulnerable children as part of their corporate social responsibility.
“Travel restrictions have not prevented child sex offenders from victimising children. They have [instead] transitioned to abuse from the comfort of their own homes, taking advantage of children spending more time online and in dire need of resources to survive,” said Janice Sofia R. Talip, Project Coordinator in Bohol Province (Visayas Region), ECPAT Philippines.
Speaking at a recent ECPAT webinar, Jan Scheer, Deputy Head of Mission, German Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand, highlighted "a new phenomenon of webcam child sex tourism," which is perpetuating vulnerabilities in the already high-risk region of South-east Asia.
“With the pandemic, there was no traffic, but unfortunately the demand continues [online]," he said. “[As travel recovers], now is a time to look at the darker sides of the industry."
End business travel impunity
The implication is that child sex tourism is dormant and ready to unleash once travel resumes.
When that happens, business travel is a risk area not to be overlooked, stressed Damien Brosnan, manager of The Code (The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism) in Bangkok.
Brosnan explained that while child sex tourism has mainly been discussed in the “traditional tourism sense”, a study has found that an increasing number of perpetrators offend as business travellers. “We must work not only with traditional tourism companies but with big banks or mining companies and other sectors that have employees travelling for work.”
Companies must ensure that their employees “do not have the sense of invisibility and impunity” when travelling, he stressed, and are instead “made to feel responsible for their actions”.
A sector challenged
Whether in business travel or beyond, child protection advocates are calling for action. ECPAT's Talip said: "Businesses should take accountability by investing in prevention tools, actively collaborating with law enforcement investigating cases, but also supporting vulnerable children as part of their corporate social responsibility. Likewise, governments should [enforce] schemes and businesses should be encouraged to implement child protection policies, display and train employees on best practices."
Since its enactment in Bohol, the Anti-Child Sex Tourism Ordinance has resulted in thousands of tourism workers “sensitised and capacitated” to respond to suspicious activities, resulting in an increase in reports made to the authorities. Talip hopes this will be replicated elsewhere in the Philippines.
But a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) human trafficking taskforce stated that the sector is especially challenged to tackle human trafficking at this juncture.
“The shift to a lower-touch operating environment in travel and tourism as a result of the pandemic has led hospitality companies, for instance, to have fewer interactions with guests, making it more difficult to recognise potential indicators of human trafficking,” the report’s authors wrote.
Instead, the report highlighted the “urgent need” for action from beyond the sector. “[Targeted] actions often go beyond the responsibility of the private sector and should prioritise addressing drivers such as poverty, homelessness, and food insecurity, which could push those most vulnerable into hazardous situations. Simultaneously, robust strategies should be developed to reach at-risk children and adolescents who are isolated and not able to attend school, or are in situations increasing their vulnerability to trafficking, forced labour and all forms of sexual exploitation.”
From reaction to prevention
Still, the tourism sector has made strides in training staff on how to identify and respond to suspected trafficking cases. This was corroborated by the WTTC report, which showed efforts from within the sector in the area of awareness raising and employee training, such as in the case of WTTC member companies American Express Global Business Travel, CWT and Marriott.
Marriott has gone a step further to support survivors, co-developing a job readiness and hospitality training curriculum for survivors of human trafficking with the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery.
Perhaps the next step is for travel and tourism players to take a stake in prevention.
Advocating change at all levels including government and general public, ECPAT’s message to companies is to “act before harm is done, and to address the impact on children’s rights throughout the value chain,” said Dr. Dorothea Czarnecki, deputy executive director for programmes, ECPAT International.