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Why Children are at Risk of Sexual Exploitation during COVID-19

By ECPAT International
APRIL 7TH, 2020

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COVID-19 has now spread to virtually every country in the world and has a devastating impact on people, economies, health systems, and communities. While most people’s lives are put on hold, criminals are finding ways to take advantage of the situation, including those who seek to sexually exploit children. ECPAT has gathered information on how children are at increased risk of sexual abuse and exploitation during this global pandemic.

As the world responds to COVID-19, we see that push factors that facilitate or lead to sexual exploitation of children are expected to intensify. According to ECPAT members across the world, restrictions imposed by governments worldwide to curb the virus heavily impact on children. Today, ECPAT is present in 102 countries, through 118 members.

Socio-Economic Factors Put Marginalised Children at Risk

The impact of the coronavirus has made economies suffer. Millions of people around the world have already lost their job, whilst global stock markets plunged to levels similar to those during previous global crises. We know that in times of crisis, already marginalised groups tend to carry most of the burden of the consequences. When people are financially struggling, children tend to become more isolated and less linked to supportive networks, and the sale of children for sexual exploitation increases. Children living in isolated, remote areas and in refugee settings are at the highest risk, and as offenders hunt for easy victims, marginalised children are more likely to be targeted.

Up to 75 million jobs are at immediate risk in the travel and tourism industry due to the pandemic, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Asia-Pacific is expected to be the most heavily impacted, with up to 49 million jobs at risk in the region. This dramatically increases the economic vulnerability of families, in particular in countries which depend on income from tourism. But also outside the travel and tourism sector, millions of people are working for an already low wage, now risking to lose their jobs.

Children ‘On Delivery’ in Brazil

In Brazil, some states already signal an increase in the number of gender-based violence and sexual violence against children. Another form of child sexual exploitation already under investigation is the attempt to establish a ‘delivery’ or ‘drive thru’ service for sexual exploitation of children, since offenders are unable to go to places where they usually sexually exploit children.

Child Sex Offenders Adjust during COVID-19

Both organisations and law enforcement have seen an increase in sexual crimes against children online during the COVID-19 outbreak. When it becomes more difficult for offenders to operate where they normally do, some tend to migrate elsewhere, often online. You can read more about offline activity moving online further down.

It is easier than ever to access, download, produce and share child sexual abuse material.

Using the Internet to sexually exploit children today is easier than ever. Both to get in contact with children and to find like-minded offenders, which also makes it easier to access, download, produce and share child sexual abuse material. Both through open networks, and over the dark web and peer-to-peer networks.

ECPAT Sweden is one of those who have seen an increase in reports of online child sexual abuse to their hotline. As a response, they have opened a child helpline to support children who have had sexually explicit images and videos shared online.

“We’ve had tips of web pages where perpetrators are discussing how the situation we are in now can be exploited.”

– Anna Karin Hildingson Boqvist, Secretary-General at ECPAT Sweden.

Samoa’s Helpline Up and Running 24/7

Over the past two weeks, the ECPAT member in Samoa, had more calls to their helpline than ever before. Women and children are reaching out to get help in situations of violence at home.

New risks when children and offenders are forced to stay at home

As borders are closing and travellers have to stay at home, there is less physical contact between travelling child sex offenders and children. However, as many children are forced to stay at home, violence within the family may increase and children are at higher risk of online sexual exploitation as they spend more time online.

Previous research from ECPAT indicates that digital cameras, laptops, and cell phones have greatly influenced the production of videos and images of child sexual abuse. Even though some evidence shows that higher-quality images are considered more valuable, cell phones and webcams seem to have become the norm. In particular, they allow perpetrators to offend in their own homes and at their own convenience.

Europol is closely following and responding to the situation

According to a new Europol report, there are several indicators that can tell if there has been an increase in online child sexual exploitation during the COVID-19 crisis. Europol will be monitoring those indicators the coming weeks to assess the impact of the virus, and to support investigations.

  • An increase in the number of attempts to access illegal blocked websites featuring child sexual abuse material;
  • The number of reports from the public to law enforcement and hotlines. In Spain, for example, the number of reports have increased significantly and in Denmark has seen a three-folded increase in online searches to access illegal sites;
  • Isolated and ‘bored’ offenders stating their increasing interest in image trading in online communities of offenders;
  • Conversations between offenders in forums about opportunities to exploit children are appearing.

Sources from the Australian Federal Police and the US HSI have also confirmed these trends. Police units in other countries have also reported an increase in online grooming for sexual purposes, and sexual extortion where the offender threatens children in order to get more pictures which also increases sexually explicit images and videos taken by children themselves.

Support to Rural Areas in India

In India, ECPAT’s member Child In Need Institute is making sure their homes for child victims and survivors are equipped with soap, hand sanitiser and masks and psychological help through video calls. Child In Need is also raising awareness about social distancing in rural areas, as well as handing out food.

Offenders worldwide may live-stream more child sexual abuse online

In an interview with Reuters, organisations in Southeast Asia warn that a spike in exploitation may come, especially in the Philippines when the issue is already widespread. They say that as families lose their income, they may see an opportunity in “live-streaming shows” as the demand from offenders across the world has continued to increase, especially as offenders cannot move or travel. Reports are also coming in from the police that other types of live-streaming are coming up, different to the ones we have been seeing in the Philippines in recent years.’

ECPAT member APLE Cambodia has seen a rise in online child sexual abuse since schools recently closed in the country.

“Child sex offenders online are taking advantage of this situation to get in touch with, groom and lure children to sexual activities.”

– Samleang Seila, director of ECPAT member APLE Cambodia.

Grooming children online today – travelling tomorrow

As previously mentioned, both domestic and international offenders sexually exploit children during travels. They are not only tourists but people who have been living abroad long term, diplomats, business travellers and voluntourists, to name a few. Some do use the Internet to get in contact with children and eventually meet with them offline. We anticipate that some are also grooming children online today, to whom they will travel when the COVID-19 crisis is over. There is also a risk that offenders groom local families ‘offline’ affected by the crisis to exploit their children.

Many perpetrators have travelled to Greece to meet young boys they have already connected with online.

These patterns have been identified before, as in the case of ECPAT’s recent report on the sexual exploitation of children in Greece. The report suggests that many perpetrators have travelled to Athens with the intent of meeting young boys, who they have already connected with through the Internet. We expect that this will be exacerbated by the conditions created during and after the COVID-19 lockdown.

Traffickers will find new ways of exploiting children

When entertainment venues that traffickers frequently use to seek customers and exploit child victims are shut down, there is a likelihood that child trafficking patterns will adapt. For example, the use of hidden online channels to discuss transactions and the sale of children in private homes is likely to increase. Several sources have already pointed out that they have detected signs of worsening conditions for children in countries like Vietnam, China and India. Child marriages are also likely to increase as teenagers from rural areas are highly affected by the worsening economic situation, being forced to migrate to urban areas and to live on the streets.

Reduced access to medical services and support

We know from our research, and the ACE study, that the impact of sexual violence on children can be life-long and devastating both physically, psychologically and emotionally. In the global response to COVID-19, health services are under unprecedented demand with minimal capacity to regular service provision, which will prevent child victims and survivors from getting appropriate help and considerably reduce opportunities for early detection and reports.

You Can Help Fight Child Sexual Exploitation

Most importantly, you can help talk to children about sexual exploitation and risks online, before the offender does. As the Australian E-safety Commissioner said: Online child abuse and exploitation can happen in many ways. The predator could be a stranger, an ‘online friend’ your child has never met face-to-face, or someone they actually know.

  • Remember that sexual exploitation of children affect both girls, boys and non-binary;
  • As an adult, don’t punish children or scare them from speaking up. Listen, do not judge, do not interrupt;
  • Use resources online that guide you in how to talk to children about risks and sexual exploitation;
  • Reinforce that it is never a child’s fault and that the blame is with the offender;
  • Tell children to always close the app or website and tell a trusted adult if something happens; and
  • Report incidents to the police or a hotline.

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