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Child-sex tourism debated in The Network


Child-sex tourism debated in The Network


From Thailand to Cuba, Brazil to Morocco, sex-tourism is lucrative. Websites hawk erotic escapes while authorities in impoverished lands are tempted to look the other way despite occasional high-profile arrests of tourists preying on minors.

UNICEF estimates more than one million children are drawn into the sex trade every year.

In Morocco a Belgian TV crew with a hidden camera is offered sex with children.

An in-flight video warns tourists against sexually abusing children. But how effective is that kind of scare-tactic?

Chris Burns, presenter: Wired into this edition of the Network is, from Bangkok, Amaelee McCoy — child protection specialist at UNICEF’s east Asia and Pacific regional office.

From the European Parliament in Brussels, Ariane Couvreur, project manager of ECPAT which stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes.

And from Uppsala, Sweden, Cecilia Wikstrom MEP from the group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, also a member of the parliament’s legal affairs committee.

Welcome all of you to the show. Let me start with a question to all of you. More than 100 countries have signed the UN convention’s Optional Protocol, which is to fight child sex-tourism among other things, since 2002. Why are there still two million children victims a year? Why has it failed? Why have perhaps you failed?

Amaelee McCoy, UNICEF, Bangkok:

Actually I’m not sure that that would be an indication of failure. I think that across the globe, more governments and more private sector companies, more organisations, are working very hard to address this issue. The difficulty is actually that once law-enforcement capacity and legislation is strengthened in one part of the world, or in one particular country, then child-sex offenders tend to gravitate towards other areas where protection is quite a bit weaker.

Chris Burns, presenter: Thank you Amaelee, …. to Ariane.

Ariane Couvreur, ECPAT, Brussels:

I perfectly agree with what Amaelee said and I would add that child-sex tourism is a very lucrative market. So there are millions and millions every year that I would say are ‘engendered’ by child-sex tourism, so that makes it very difficult to fight because it’s a very important (significant) business.

Chris Burns, presenter: Ariane, you’re saying almost that you’re helpless. Cecilia, do you feel helpless as a policy-maker?

Cecilia Wikstrom, MEP:

Well I do not. I really do not. Of course this is a very difficult matter but it has to be addressed. Now remember that this is for the first time ever that we are introducing child-sex tourism in EU legislation. So within this issue, this dossier, we are hitting at the problem. And keep in mind we are putting in legislation concerning 27 member-states and 500 million Europeans, so we are really making a difference.

Chris Burns, presenter: OK, let’s go back to you Ariane. How often do tourism authorities look the other way? Which countries are looking the other way?

Ariane Couvreur, ECPAT, Brussels:

I don’t think we can stigmatise countries, but it’s true that as it’s very lucrative it’s very difficult to apply laws and sometimes to hide this reality. But Cambodia, for example, fights very seriously this problem and wants to change its reputation. It’s very active in prosecuting offenders.

Chris Burns, presenter: Amaelee, you’ve talked to me about this before, about the lack of media coverage in a number of countries. What about that aspect? Are there some who see that as taboo, or who are afraid of perhaps hurting their tourist business?

Amaelee McCoy, UNICEF, Bangkok:

That can definitely be an issue. I think this is a very sensitive issue because it deals with sex and also deals with sexual relations with children. So media outlets are still quite sensitive about trying to cover this issue. When it is covered, the reports are mainly about western child-sex offenders who come to the region. But if you look at the number of international travellers who come to south-east Asia, they are mainly from east Asian countries, they’re not from western countries. There’s a feeling that actually most child-sex offenders are locals or they’re from east Asian countries, and yet that coverage is not coming up.

Chris Burns, presenter: Cecilia, let’s talk about action. What action is the European Parliament going to take on this, this month I think?

Cecilia Wikstrom, MEP:

What we did, we have one directive on human-trafficking and that’s important. So this will be the second directive hitting right at the spot, criminalising sex-offences, child pornography, child-abuse and also for the first time starting to talk about grooming, and what grooming is all about.

Chris Burns, presenter: OK, Ariane for those who don’t know what ‘grooming’ is, can you explain?

Ariane Couvreur, ECPAT, Brussels:

It’s actually seducing a child via the new technologies, to get him or her to do what the perpetrator or offender wants to do. Online chat for example.

Cecilia Wikstrom, MEP:

But grooming has also to be addressed in real-life as well as online because grooming is taking place where I am and where you all are and on the internet. So what is illegal in real-life has to be illegal on the internet. And this has been our aim, but it has been very difficult to get a broad consensus on it within the council, I must say. But now we have managed, and it has been a lot of very hard work.

Chris Burns, presenter: Amaelee, do you think that the European Union and other forces in the world should tie their development aid to how much a country is participating or cooperating in trying to fight sex-tourism.

Amaelee McCoy, UNICEF, Bangkok:

I think that’s a difficult thing to say because actually some countries are quite pro-active in trying to arrest child-sex offenders. We’ve seen a growing number of arrests in this region. But actually if you’re being pro-active and taking some positive action on the issue, will you penalised for actually doing so? It may seem that you have a significant problem with the numbers of child-sex offenders in your country but it could be that you’re just being pro-active about the issue. It’s difficult to try and gauge how pro-active countries are being because at the national level you can have excellent legislation and excellent capacity, but it’s actually down to the local level, and how effective law-enforcement is and how effective service-providers are in actually dealing with this problem.

Chris Burns, presenter: Ariane, do you think people should be named-and-shamed – sex tourists?

Ariane Couvreur, ECPAT, Brussels:

I don’t think that publicity is always preferable because it is sexual. It is very intimate. But I’m sure is has to go to the media that people are punished for those kinds of crimes, and that can happen for the potential sex-offenders. But for the victims certainly not. Media coverage is not something that would help them.

Chris Burns, presenter: Amaelee let me go back to you. What do you think about the argument by some that it’s a cultural difference, that some societies are more permissive, that the age of consent is lower? What do you think?

Amaelee McCoy, UNICEF, Bangkok:

I think that’s a very weak argument. It’s something that’s often used as an excuse by child-sex offenders who are travelling from western nations or from other countries to poorer countries saying: ‘Well, this is acceptable here.’

Actually, there’s no evidence to show that parents of families in developing countries love their children any less.

Chris Burns, presenter: Cecilia, the European Parliament is going to take action, the EU is going to take action. What’s the next step after this?

Cecilia Wikstrom, MEP:

We have EU legislation for the first time ever, and I’m really proud of that. It doesn’t solve the problem but it adds a piece to the solution. But as somebody already mentioned, this is also a problem that has to be addressed not only through legislation but we have to change the attitude.

Chris Burns, presenter: Cecilia, thanks very much. Thanks to all of you for joining us. That’s all the time we’ve got for now. I’d like to thank our guests Amaelee McCoy, Ariane Couvreur and Cecilia Wikstrom.

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