Monday, 5th March 2018

The Oxfam scandal exposed the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children by foreign aid workers, highlighting the endemic child abuse being committed internationally. These offences have common underlying structural problems that are rooted in our attitudes to international child protection. In order to prevent child exploitation by British nationals working or travelling overseas, greater transparency, accountability and safeguarding measures must be implemented by governments, charities, businesses and individuals.

For many people, it was shocking to hear about the scandal that has enveloped Oxfam and other international NGOs. But why are we shocked? Have we not yet learnt that abuse takes place in a multitude of settings – our homes, our care homes, our places of faith, our schools, our football clubs – the list goes on. So why are we surprised that it happens elsewhere, in situations of war, poverty, natural disasters or where institutionalisation is commonplace?

Evidence has shown that the root causes of trafficking are exacerbated following a natural disaster. For example, in Nepal, following the 2015 earthquake, it was claimed that hundreds if not thousands of children were trafficked. In the 1990s and 2000s, a trafficking ring was exposed in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina with UN peacekeepers not simply abusing trafficked women but actually trafficking the victims themselves. In Haiti, a place where approximately 30,000 children are said to be in often unregistered orphanages, reports of sexual abuse in camps and institutions following the 2010 earthquake were rife. Peacekeepers, once again, were implicated; more than 600 women and children have claimed they were sexually exploited by UN peacekeeping forces.

It is common sense to anticipate an increase in sexual violence in such situations where child protection systems are weakened, children are separated from their families and there is an influx of foreigners working in temporary aid settings. Abuse is as much as about power as it is about sexual gratification. ECPAT UK has worked on countless cases involving individuals deliberately taking jobs in teaching, volunteering or even setting up orphanages as a front for abuse.

The fact that there are many situations where children can be more vulnerable to abuse should be a major cause for concern, yet this type of offending overseas occurs mostly in a ‘blindspot’ for our authorities. We don’t even have accurate data for it. An FOI by ECPAT UK in 2015 to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office revealed that 154 British nationals were detained overseas for child sex offences. Yet these incidences are only recorded if the local police or the suspect themselves reports it to the embassy. Worryingly, we don’t know how many British nationals are ‘sex tourists’ or how many use the internet to live stream abuse across the globe.

In 2016, the first comprehensive global study on children exploited in travel in tourism found that, “in an increasingly interconnected world, more people are on the move and even the most remote parts of the planet are now within reach, thanks to cheaper travel and the spread of the internet. As a result, the risks of child sexual exploitation are increasing”. Inconsistent laws and approaches make tackling the issue difficult. Yet, in the UK at least, we have legislation that removes the aspect of ‘dual criminality’ for sexual offences. This means that the fact that another country may not criminalise acts of child sexual abuse, or word the legislation in exactly the same way, doesn’t prevent a UK national being criminally liable.

There are steps that can be taken but such a large-scale and endemic problem requires full commitment from all to create accountable and transparent practice –governments, businesses, charities and individuals. There must be enhanced checks when recruiting staff to work overseas, as well as regular reviews of these checks. There must be strong child protection policies and safeguarding procedures in place, which are always followed, no matter the context. Organisations need protective whistleblowing policies and need to promote a culture of zero tolerance of sexual violence and inappropriate behaviour towards beneficiaries or communities where they are working. There must also be mechanisms to allow potential victims to report abuse safely; they must be a given a voice in all of this.

Those operating or working abroad must be held to account regardless of the location or the context. If a possible offence does occur, it must be reported both in the UK and in the country where it took place. The UK has the legislation to deal with sexual offences committed abroad by British nationals. We even have a little known, under-used International Child Protection Certificate whereby organisations employing a British national overseas can do a DBS check and, more importantly, can disclose information that is relevant for child protection interests to a future employer.

Even we as individual travellers or tourists have a role to play in reporting concerns, avoiding volontourism in orphanages – which has been shown to perpetuate child trafficking – and in calling on our own governments to collect proper data and prioritise this issue.

The fallout of recent weeks has put the spotlight on those individuals embroiled in the aid scandal. Yet the potential victims themselves remain largely unknown and voiceless in locations far away, often without access to proper victim support or compensation. We must stop operating as if child abuse isn’t going to happen and being surprised when it does, and instead take increased preventative international action based on the sad reality that child abuse happens everywhere. For more information, view ECPAT's reports on transnational child abuse.

Read the full article in The Guardian


Press contact

Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns, ECPAT UK: 07890 120834 [email protected]