The news that Gary Glitter is to return to the UK this week on completing his prison sentence for child sex crime brought this issue to mind again.
We discussed the subject of child sex tourism in our email newsletter of 31 January 2007, but it seemed worth raising the issues again and seeing what progress, if any, has been made to stop this evil practice.
People often think of sex tourism as being most prevalent in the Far East in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but it’s much more widespread than that. In fact, you can find a sex tourism industry in many countries where there’s widespread poverty – the sad fact is that desperation drives people to desperate measures.
And you don’t find people much more desperate than street kids, who are additionally vulnerable because they’re more easily exploited by unscrupulous adults. Studies in Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya have shown that many children in the sex industry have lived on the streets, or are still living there; they typically start having sex between the ages of 12 and 14. Most of them are on drugs, and many of them are HIV positive. But even in relatively prosperous countries, children may fall victim to predatory adults from the rich West. For US citizens it may be as simple as just hopping across the border to Ciudad Juarez. And British citizens have been prosecuted in Sweden, France and Spain as well as in less developed countries.
To some extent, the Internet removes the need to travel at all. Hotline.ie, a service set up by the Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland, reported in July 2008 that there had been a 70% increase in the number of reports it had received about child pornography in 2007, compared to the year before. But there are still plenty of people travelling overseas for sex – sometimes they even go on organised tours, using tour operators with innocent-sounding names.
So are the efforts by government agencies and NGOs to stamp out child sex tourism having any effect? Well, yes and no.
Several countries, including the UK, have now passed laws making it possible to convict people for child sex offences they’ve committed abroad. (Indeed, in several places in Thailand you can see posters threatening “Commit crime in our country – Go to jail in yours”.) However, enforcement is very mixed. Part of this is because the police in the country where the offences are committed don’t have the resources to investigate child sex crime – and this may be even more the case where the child victims are street kids; often no-one is concerned about their plight. On occasions, the police themselves may be paid to look the other way.
But sometimes, sorry to say, it’s a matter of the government of the offender’s country of origin not being willing to commit resources to extraditing and prosecuting its own criminals. According to ECPAT UK, a leading NGO in the field of combating the sexual exploitation of children, the United States and Australia have made considerable strides in tracking down, repatriating and convicting their child sex offenders. But while the US have convicted 65 people since 1997 for child sex offences committed outside the USA, and Australia has convicted 28, the UK have managed to convict fewer than half-a-dozen. Nice though it might be to think that Britons abroad aren’t into child sex abuse, the facts speak otherwise; several Britons have been convicted overseas, and many of them are repeat offenders.
The British Government has argued that it’s more effective to try to secure a conviction in the country where the offence is committed. But that’s not the case where law enforcement is weak. And in any case current law enforcement efforts tend to concentrate on those who’ve committed offences in the UK and fled abroad, rather than those who’ve managed to keep a clean record in the UK. At present, British sex offenders who were convicted in a non-UK jurisdiction don’t get added to the UK’s Sex Offenders Register – making it far easier for them to prey on children again.
Even if they’ve been convicted in the UK, they’re usually free to travel overseas in the future – although they’re supposed to notify police if they’re travelling for more than three days. Although police have the power to apply to the courts for a Foreign Travel Order to limit or prevent child sex offenders from travelling abroad, these only last for no more than six months at a time, and require a good deal of paperwork – so only three have ever been issued. On the other hand, over 3,000 have been issued to football hooligans.
Not a very good record, is it? If other developed countries with similar legal systems to ours can do so much better, shouldn’t the British Government be doing more?
To find out more about this subject, or to join the campaign against child sex tourism, please visit www.ecpat.org.uk