BANGKOK—An internal document of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) foresees sex offenders who prey on children taking advantage of Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration in the coming years, posing a rising challenge for law enforcement that already struggle to address such crimes.
Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is promoted as a key step for boosting the region’s productivity and more fully integrating it into the global economy.
Businessmen and skilled laborers are expected to have an easier time crossing borders to work in industries where they are needed. Tourism is also expected to get a boost, with the number of foreign visitors to Southeast Asia set to double in the next five years.
That can carry downsides, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
“The economic growth of tourism has not always translated into better opportunities for those who live in these tourist regions. So children found in these areas can potentially be employed in these entertainment industries. Or children living or working on the streets are vulnerable to abuse from travelers,” said Margaret Akullo of the UNODC office in Bangkok. She is one of the authors of the report titled “Protecting the Future: Improving the Response to Child Sex Offending in Southeast Asia.”
A struggle to crack down on child sex crimes
The report is not being publicly released but a copy was obtained by VOA.
It said new forms of commitment are required from governments in the region to crack down on child sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia. The UNODC document describes how traditional policing – which can be scant in rural areas anyway – has not worked.
UNODC has conducted a survey of police, prosecutors and judges in the region to ascertain why there are so few offenders facing justice.
“The key obstacle to successful prosecutions on child sex abuse cases was a lack of knowledge, skills and resources for the police to effectively identify, investigate and prosecute such case,” said Akullo, UNODC’s Combating Child Sex Offenses Regional Program Coordinator.
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of sophistication in dealing with computer-facilitated crimes.
In some countries, such as the Philippines, there are a significant number of children exploited by having them perform sex acts that are witnessed by paying customers in other countries over the internet.
Another challenge is corruption, and in some cases, notably in Thailand, law enforcement officers themselves have been involved in procuring children for sex tourists or being bribed to look the other way.
The UNODC report praises Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam for initiating regional cooperation on monitoring and barring entry to foreigners with prior-sex-related offenses. They are also able to utilize an international child sexual exploitation image database to identify subjects established by INTERPOL.
Measuring extent of abuses in Asia
“Because of the hidden nature it is difficult to actually have concrete numbers,” Akullo acknowledged. “But that should not be the key driver. The key driver is if children are being abused we need cooperation from governments, civil society, donor community, international community to protect these children.”
The U.N. agency’s report emphasizes that while the stereotype of a sex offender targeting children in Southeast Asia is a Caucasian male, a significant number of local men, as well as tourists from other Asian countries, are also engaging in such crimes.
The problem also extends beyond the typical “sex tours” to Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Researchers noted pedophilic activities in Batam and Bali in Indonesia.
The UNODC report also describes a trend to disguise exploitation through forced marriages of under-aged girls to foreign men working in the natural resources industries in the West Kalimantan province in Indonesia where girls can be found in jungle brothels.
The U.N. organization is to host a three-day regional training workshop in Bangkok in early November for police, prosecutors, judges and social workers from 16 countries in the East Asia-Pacific region, focusing on how to respond to violence against children in contact with the justice system.
Among the keynote speakers will be Thailand’s Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol, a former ambassador to Austria and international agencies in Vienna, including UNODC.
The princess worked for six years in her native country as a prosecutor, mainly focused on criminal law. She is known for her advocacy of the international rule of law.