Guest Blog: Protecting children’s rights in Asian tourism destinations: What more can be done?

Guest Blogger: Afrooz Kaviani Johnson 

Child Protection Seminar at Aloft Hotel, Sukhumvit Soi 11, BangkWhen we hear mention of child exploitation in Asian tourism, often the first thing that comes to mind is the sexual exploitation of children.

The shocking reports of young girls trapped in horrifying conditions to serve tens of foreign ‘clients’ day in and day out. Or, perhaps you’ve even witnessed an older foreign male walking hand-in-hand with a ‘local’ girl or boy along a touristy beach, or in a red-light district late at night, and feared the worst.

Denied their rights to protection guaranteed under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as rights to survival, development and participation, this abuse of vulnerable children in less developed countries provokes outrage and deep concern. Once we learn Australians are among those travelling abroad to commit these atrocious acts, we are particularly appalled.

Over the last two decades, the global community has made impressive efforts to strengthen the normative framework relating to child sexual exploitation that crosses international borders. For example:

  • the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 34 and 35)
  • the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (Article 10), and
  • the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Human Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (Article 3).

Australia enacted extraterritorial ‘child sex tourism’ offences in 1994. The then UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, advised Australia that the legislation was necessitated by Asia’s booming tourism industry which was cheap and thus highly accessible for Australians.

Under Division 272 of the Criminal Code (Cth), Australians who sexually abuse children overseas, or benefit from or encourage ‘child sex tourism’ offences, can be jailed for up to 20 years. Preparing for or planning to commit a ‘child sex tourism’ offence is also an offence, punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.

Asian nations have also become increasingly willing to strengthen domestic laws and prosecute foreign nationals under domestic legislation. For example, all South East Asian countries have legislation that covers the major categories of sex offences against children, including sexual abuse and assault, commercial sex acts or ‘prostitution’, and the use of children to produce sexually abusive images or ‘pornography’, albeit to varying degrees.

In a relatively short time, we have seen governments, civil society and the private sector make significant advances to curb child sexual exploitation in tourism.  Not only through the strengthened international normative framework and introduction of extra-territorial legislation but also, via international law enforcement collaboration to secure arrests, prosecutions and convictions of offenders, identification and recovery and reintegration of victims, and mobilisation of the private sector and travelling public to identify and report suspicious behaviour.

The awareness and acknowledgment of the issue by both tourist-sending and tourist-receiving countries is also not an insignificant feat.

Despite this, travelling child sex offenders continue to target vulnerable children in Asia. As such, work to disrupt abusers and support victims must continue. However, this work alone is insufficient and unsustainable.

Governments and development practitioners are aware and affirm that children’s rights are interdependent. In practice, however, this principle has not been consistently realised.

The narrow focus on child sexual exploitation by foreigners has arguably failed to acknowledge the indivisibility of children’s rights. And, the interventions to date have, for the most part, been limited to after a child has been harmed.

To better protect children, we must place greater emphasis on preventing the abuse from occurring in the first place. We must also look more towards addressing underlying vulnerabilities and the interrelated nature of children’s rights. Ultimately, this requires the building and strengthening of comprehensive child protection systems to identify and reach at-risk children and families.

Alongside systemic change, there are practices in the tourism environment that need urgent attention. Tourism continues to grow rapidly in the region. Asian countries receive ever-increasing flows of international visitors year on year. Alongside this growth, vulnerable children are becoming easier to access. One particularly troubling trend is ‘orphanage tourism’ – travellers visiting and interacting with children in institutional care. This is reaching particularly concerning levels in Cambodia.

It is internationally accepted that removal of a child from a family should only be a temporary measure of last resort. As such, there is a global move away from institutional care for children.  In Cambodia, however, the opposite appears to be occurring. A 2012 UNICEF-supported study by the Cambodian Government documents a 75 per cent increase in the number of institutional care facilities since 2005.  The study found that many centres in Cambodia have turned to tourism as a way to attract more donors and that almost all centres are funded by overseas donors. In the worst cases, children are required to perform for or befriend donors and/or actively solicit funds.

The study also observes that centres have sought out international volunteers in order to raise money. (Volunteers often pay a fee for the opportunity). To attract volunteers, the ‘needs’ of both the institution and the children who reside there are promoted. Little attention is accorded the qualifications, skills or references of the volunteer.

The ‘orphanage tourism’ phenomena is deeply concerning for a number of reasons.

First, volunteers are not required to have relevant qualifications or previous work experience in social work or childcare. Yet, these volunteers will often work with children from very difficult backgrounds.

Second, it is well-documented that a high turnover of caregivers negatively impacts children in care. Despite this, tourists are visiting children in institutional care as part of their ‘itinerary’ and volunteers are spending days or weeks, and in some cases months, as part of their ‘overseas experience’.  This means children must repeatedly try to form emotional connections with different adults. While volunteers (and visitors) leave the institution feeling they’ve made a positive contribution, many of the children experience yet another abandonment.

Third, some organisations do not require or conduct proper background checks of visitors and volunteers before placing them in direct contact with children. This is a child protection risk and leaves children vulnerable to abuse.

‘Pseudo-care work’ (professionals and volunteers abusing the children with whom they work) is a known typology of travelling child sex offenders. For example, of over 1200 investigations into UK travelling child sex offenders between 2006-2011, the UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre report that in up to 19 per cent of the cases offenders were employed in roles that provided access to children.

The situation and treatment of children in institutional care in places such as Cambodia raises multiple children’s rights concerns in and of itself. There have been recent media reports of children being removed from unregistered orphanages, sometimes run and funded by Australians, following accusations of child abuse and neglect.

The connection between children already abused and their heightened vulnerability to sexual abuse by foreigners must not be ignored. It accentuates the importance of vetting those who come into contact with children in institutional care. Moreover, short-term orphanage visits by tourists exposes children to additional violations of international human rights obligations.

‘Orphanage tourism’ arguably undermines several rights to protection granted to children in the Convention on the Right of the Child including:

  • Article 9  – ‘a child shall not be separated from his or her parents, unless such a separation is in the best interests of the child’
  • Article 16  – the right to privacy, family, home, correspondence, honor and reputation
  • Article 19 – protection from violence, injury, abuse, neglect, maltreatment or exploitation, and
  • Article 20 – ‘[a] child deprived of his or her family environment shall be accorded special protection and assistance from the State’.

In spite of this, opportunities for such tourism ‘experiences’ continue unabated, with little reflection on the best interests of the children. Much legislative and policy work remains to be done in this area.

Even well-intentioned travellers need to better understand how they may be inadvertently exacerbating children’s vulnerability to abuse including sexual abuse. (See a campaign by the project I currently work on to educate travellers here.)

Looking back at responses to date, it Is clear there has been impressive progress. However, with Asia tipped to receive the largest tourism growth globally in the next two decades, it’s time to advance a next generation response that complements and builds on interventions that take place after a child is harmed.

To better protect children, a deeper level of prevention must be prioritised and the indivisibility and interrelationship of children’s rights must be better addressed. This will facilitate the development of more holistic, child-centred responses and ultimately assist in keeping children safer in tourism destinations.

Afrooz Kaviani Johnson currently works as Technical Director on Project Childhood Prevention Pillar, an Australian Government initiative to prevent child sexual exploitation in travel and tourism in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam.

Afrooz was awarded the Finkel Foundation Field to Journal’ Research grant in 2012-13 to produce an academic paper on protecting child rights in tourism destinations.

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