The cots, tucked behind beds in the transitional shelter, grabbed my attention first. We were in a shelter that houses victims immediately after they have been rescued by the police and their NGO partners. Those overseeing the shelter confirmed what I feared: the cots were necessary as almost every raid produced a child too young to sleep alone in bed. Their youngest victim was only two years old.
These children are the victims of online sexual exploitation; the fastest growing, and hardest to combat, child trafficking crime in the Philippines. Estimates say that 10,000 new Filipino children suffer online sexual exploitation annually; of these, over 50% will be under the age of 13. The reality is we will never know how many children suffer. They come from the poorest, most desperate communities; often their own parents and relatives are the perpetrators. Money is paid through transfer services; the predators hide behind the dark web, with crimes committed across complex jurisdictions. Video-chat software and the growth of the dark web allow perpetrators to act with more impunity than ever.
The online nature of this crime often desensitises us from the reality of its impact. Yet we cannot, and should not, be fooled. That a child is hidden behind a computer screen does not minimise the abuse suffered, or limit the impact and trauma.
The demand for these Filipino children is driven by the West, especially the US, Europe and Australia. In 2009, there were an estimated 750,000 predators online at any moment; the number now will be even higher.
How do we end this horrifying crime? Governments are beginning to work together; the efforts of the Global Taskforce should be applauded. But the reality is that there is so much more to do. Demand must be reduced: western societies must be educated and become sensitised to its impact. Push factors, such as poverty and access to social protections, must also be sustainably confronted. This can only be done if we, as a wider community, recognise the importance of civil society, and invest in them accordingly. Confronting crimes like this requires deep understanding of the communities affected. Local organisations are best placed for this. As a wider anti-slavery community we should be listening and doing all we can to support them. It is only through this that we can build the sustainable change that will prevent this crime from just morphing when demand does, and ensure that every child enjoys their right to a childhood free from sexual exploitation.