April 6, 2018
By Pearl Lee
THE stage was set. The gathering was meant to be a catalyst to spark change regarding sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT) in the country.
Stakeholders present offered their insights on a topic which is rarely discussed.
Sickening details of how children in this region were being exploited by travellers for sexual gratification shocked those present at the ballroom at the Novotel Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
Sadly, I regard the eye-opener event hosted by End CSEC Malaysia Network in partnership with Ecpat International as a missed opportunity for Malaysia.
Why? Allow me to digress.
The global report noted that while enormous efforts have been made to combat the problem at regional level including taskforces and public education campaigns, the phenomenon of SECTT continues, largely unabated.
The two-year study by Ecpat found the number of sexually exploited children had continued to grow in 15 countries across nine regions, despite efforts by stakeholders to curb the problem.
Ecpat, is a global network of civil society organisations that works to combat sexual exploitation of children.
The report noted:
- While cheaper flights and affordable accommodation are encouraging tourism to soar, child protection is lagging behind.
- The rise of budget travel has enabled child sexual offenders to move around more easily, especially in this region.
- Malaysia was identified as a sex trafficking destination for women and children.
- 150 children are forced into the Malaysian sex industry every year. These children comprise Malaysians, Indonesians, Thais and Indians. The syndicates operate out of dilapidated low-cost apartments in the capital to avoid detection.
- Malaysia has the highest number of IP addresses for uploading and downloading child sexual abuse material in Southeast Asia, with close to 20,000 sites detected in 2015.
- Batam and Bintan Islands are key locations for SECTT. More than 3,000 tourists from Singapore and Malaysia visit the island every week for sexual services. Thirty per cent (about 1,500) of the 5,000 people involved in the sex industry in Batam are children.
At the event, Ecpat executive director Dorothy Rozga congratulated Malaysia for formulating more stringent laws recently on increased exploitation of children. She said, however, more needs to be done to protect children, especially from sexual exploitation in the travel and tourism industry.
Coming back to where I left off earlier, this is where Malaysia lost a great opportunity to show our commitment to address, explore emerging trends and seek possible solutions related to SECTT.
While the report noted Malaysia may appear to be the less obvious destination for child sex offenders from the West, compared with Thailand and the Philippines, such exploitation exists nonetheless.
One would have thought the 2016 case of Britain’s worst paedophile Richard Huckle – convicted of sexually assaulting more than 200 children in Malaysia as he masqueraded as an English teacher – would have prompted the authorities to openly express their commitment to address SECTT.
Yet, there was no-show by top officials from the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and Tourism Ministry.
Representatives from a private aviation company and those from the travel industry scheduled to make commitments on the implementation of the recommendations in the report also decided to give the event a miss.
A representative from the police D7 unit shot herself in the foot when she said police do not have in-house expertise to deal with sexually abused children only to find herself being corrected by a child counsellor who works alongside the D11 unit tasked to speak to these children.
The problem of sexual exploitation of children in the course of travel and tourism is real.
The abusers range from those with a specific objective to those who commit the heinous act when the opportunity arises. The perpetrators are predominantly male and are locals travelling domestically or international travellers.
Malaysia welcomed 25.7 million tourists in 2015. Our country was ranked the fourth most visited country in the Asia and Pacific region, after China, Thailand and Hong Kong.
The report noted the lack of recent data made it difficult to have a more accurate picture of the gravity of the problem in the country. But it also noted some of the trends may be common to Southast Asia, including the increasing vulnerabilities of street children and migrant children.
An opportunity to show our commitment in understanding and combating SECTT was perhaps overshadowed by the tabling of the Anti-Fake News Bill and Election Commission’s Redelineation report.
Perhaps the event could have been organised at a better time.
But maybe we should just get our priorities right.
Putting the interest of our children above everything else is never the wrong choice.
Pearl is an award winning journalist. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @pearllee22