In addition to bringing a highly anticipated boost to the region’s development, next year’s ASEAN Economic Community could also incur a host of darker consequences, including an increase in child sexual exploitation, the United Nations warns.
With freer borders and enhanced mobility under the upcoming integration, offenders who prey upon children may have an easier time gaining access to the regions’ vulnerable kids, according to an internal report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Tourist arrivals in ASEAN are projected to nearly triple from 40.5 million in 2014 to over 112 million by 2018.
“The rise in legitimate tourist arrivals is likely to be matched by a similar increase in travelling child sex offenders seeking access to vulnerable children,” said the UNODC’s report Protecting the Future: Improving the Response to Child Sex Offending in Southeast Asia. While Western males may be perceived as the stereotypical child sex tourist in Southeast Asia, Asian tourists make up a larger percentage of the offenders, the reports finds.
“From the data that we have, a small percentage of offenders are Westerners; the vast majority of the offences are committed by Cambodians, followed by Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese visitors,” said Margaret Akullo, a UNODC program coordinator and one of the report’s authors.
From 2003-2013, 305 offenders were arrested in Cambodia for child sex offences, 132 of whom were Cambodian, UNODC data show.
Though sexual crimes against children are imprisonable offences in Cambodia, only a slim fraction of the suspects end up brought to trial and sentenced. Just 18 foreigners were sent to court in Cambodia during 2013 for sexually abusing children, according to the Ministry of Interior.
Meanwhile, studies have calculated the victims to number closer to a thousand over the past decade.
“Cambodia’s legal system is among the weakest in the ASEAN … the poor legal enforcement and the option of buying justice will make Cambodia the top destination for child sex offenders,” said Samleang Seila, executive director of child protection NGO Action Pour Les Enfants.
The UNODC is currently working with Cambodia to strengthen the “legal gaps” and address a perceived lack of skills and knowledge in the police force in terms of investigating and prosecuting child exploitation cases in coordination with the other ASEAN members.
“This is not a crime one country can fight on its own in isolation,” said Akullo.
Cambodian Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak offered assurances that the Kingdom had a strategy.
“We have our mechanisms.… We are not doing nothing,” Sopheak said.
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