Travelers journey to the four corners of the world for all the right reasons: to meet and socialize with people from different cultures, to experience firsthand the marvels of nature and human ingenuity, and volunteering for the benefit of the environment or for local residents. But there are people who travel the world for a less benign reason, child sexual tourism. The term usually refers to travel to a foreign country or region to engage in sexual activities with children. This article is written to show the dimensions of the problem and the ways that all levels of society from the United Nations to the individual traveler can combat the scourge, punish the perpetrators and rescue the children.
Children whose sexual services are sold to tourists are also forced into prostitution for the local population, forced to beg on the streets, work without pay on farms and in factories and in domestic servitude. Sexual tourists frequently take photographs and videos of their activities and post the pictures on the Internet
Some sexual tourists join specialized tours that bring them to venues to engage in sexual activity with children; some find information on the Internet that helps them plan their own tour; a very large number travel overseas with the intent of hiring adult prostitutes but are introduced to child prostitutes by pimps. The number of child sexual tourists worldwide is unknown. Sexual tourism is illegal in all countries so persons don’t indicate on the landing card they fill out as they arrive at a foreign airport that the purpose of their trip is to have sex with a child. However, very roughly it is estimated that 25% of all sexual tourists exploiting children come from the United States.
A common image of the sexual tourist is that he is a middle aged man and this is mostly true but they range in age from their teens to their 70s and some are women. Child sex tourists come from the United States and Western Europe, Japan and other developed or developing countries. Some hotspots are the iconic destinations of Bali, the Amazon rain forest and Angkor Wat. Other prominent destinations are Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines but it thrives wherever there are poor children mixing with foreigners from more affluent countries. Child sexual tourism is part of the larger problem of child prostitution and exists in all countries of the world. It is illegal in all countries in the world although enforcement efforts vary substantially from country to country because of resource constraints and corruption. Worldwide only a small fraction of sexual tourists are arrested, tried and jailed. Many countries, including the United States have extraterritorial prosecution laws under which a person who has engaged in sexual activity with a child anywhere in the world can be prosecuted in his/her home country. In the United States the penalty can be incarceration for up to 30 years; there is no statute of limitations.
It is estimated that about two million children are enslaved as prostitutes worldwide. A University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work report published in 2001 estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 children are sexually exploited each year in the United States. The Geneva-based human rights group Terres des Hommes estimates that there are 50,000 to 60,000 child sex slaves in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, traffickers roam the island looking for poor children to recruit into sex slavery. It is not uncommon for children to be trafficked from their home country to very distant countries. East Asian sex slaves have been found in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Southern Africa, El Salvador, Venezuela and Gabon. The fact that they do not know the local language isolates them from the local population and inhibits their ability to escape.
The sexual exploitation of children derives from two of the most powerful forces that shape human behavior: sex and greed. Accordingly, the prevalence of exploitation can be decreased but the problem will never go away. Many people believe that child prostitution is a cultural tradition in some countries. This is NOT true! The practice is considered abhorrent in all countries and is illegal in all countries. Fortunately significant efforts to fight child sexual exploitation are being made at all levels of society starting with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child passed in 1989 with its attached detailed protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography which was passed in 2000. UN conventions and protocols only have the force of law when a country passes legislation implementing them. All members of the UN ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child except for two: the United States and Somalia but the US has ratified the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. The United States has gone quite far to implement the Optional Protocol by passing, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the PROTECT Act of 2003 which have been important milestones in protecting children from sexual exploitation. The US Department of Justice, in cooperation with other federal and state enforcement agencies has a vigorous program to investigate and prosecute violations.
There are a large number of non-government organizations (NGOs) throughout the world fighting against sex trafficking of children. The organization “End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes” (ECPAT) is a large consortium of regional organizations throughout the world with headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand that leverages its efforts by persuading hotel chains and tour operators to help decrease the sexual exploitation of children.. They have developed a code of conduct for the travel industry for the protection of children from sexual exploitation in travel and tourism. Tour operators, travel agents, hotels, airlines, etc. which endorse the code commit themselves to implement the following six measures: 1) establish a corporate ethical policy against commercial sexual exploitation of children; 2) train the personnel in the country of origin and travel destinations; 3) introduce clauses in their contracts with suppliers stating a common repudiation of sexual exploitation of children; 4) provide information to travelers through catalogues, brochures, in flight videos, ticket slips, websites, etc.; 5) provide information to local “key personnel” such as police departments at destinations; and 6) report annually to the ECPAT code secretariat annually. Three of the larger companies that subscribe to the code are the French hotel chain Accor which operates 4000 hotels worldwide, TUI Travel PLC a British travel company that sells package tours to more than 30 million holiday makers a year and the Carlson Group an American travel conglomerate that owns the Carlson Wagonlit chain of travel agents, Radisson and Regent hotels, resorts and cruise ships as well as several other hotel brands. The ECPAT code has been widely adopted in Europe, Asia and South America but companies such as Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt in the United States have been reluctant to adopt it. The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has adopted the code and has developed several aids to help its members implement its provisions.
Childsafe International, based in Cambodia, has developed a network of 800 people: taxi drivers as well as employees of hotels, restaurants, internet cafes, travel agencies and tour operators who are trained to recognize and react to situations where children are or could be victims of sexual exploitation. Under the auspices of ECPAT-USA many hotels and travel companies in the Caribbean and on Riviera Maya in Mexico have signed the code. In addition, training has been provided to hotel staffs and unions in the recognition and handling of child prostitution.
Individual travelers occasionally observe the sexual exploitation of children and frequently feel that they are powerless to do anything about it. They may be approached by a pimp selling the sexual services of a child, they may see a pimp arranging sexual encounters between children and paying customers or they may see a man entering a hotel with an apparently unrelated child and going to his room. Actually there are several things that an individual traveler can do. If a person is traveling with an organized tour group and sees an incident of sexual exploitation, he/she should first speak with the tour leader who should be able to report the incident to a local rescue organization, the police and to the headquarters of the tour company. If the tour leader does not seem able to respond to the incident, this should be reported on the evaluation form that is filled out at the end of the trip. If you are traveling independently or the tour leader cannot handle the situation, you should report the incident to the hotel where you are staying if the incident happened there or otherwise to the police. As soon as you have access to the internet log onto the cybertipline operated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (www.cybertipline.org) which also has links to affiliates throughout the world, and provide information about the incident you observed. They can also be reached by telephone at 1-800-843-5678. If you believe that the prostitute’s customer is a US citizen, you can also report to the US consulate in the country where the incident took place. You should definitely NOT confront a pimp; he may be a hardened criminal and possibly a violent one.
Childsafe International recommends that travelers not give money to children begging on the street. In most cases these children are slaves and any money they receive goes straight into the pockets of their owners. It also makes it harder for social workers to encourage them to find safe sources of income. Instead, notify a local organization like Childsafe which can place them in a shelter and train them.
If you are traveling independently and it appears that your hotel is facilitating the sexual exploitation of children, change hotels as soon as possible.
If you are planning a trip and are comparing several hotels or travel companies, try to choose one that has adopted the ECPAT code of conduct or is part of an organization like ChildSafe. The ECPAT Secretariat (www.thecode.org) provides a current list of hotels and tour operators that have adopted the code. In the US this choice is difficult because very few US hotel and tour companies even mention the issue of responsible tourism on their web sites or in their brochures. Recently the Council of Europe recommended that European Union countries encourage companies in the travel industry to adopt the ECPAT code.
US State Department web page on trafficking in persons: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/
ECPAT International: http://www.ecpat.net (has links to the ECPAT affiliates throughout the world)
ChildSafe International: http://www.childsafe-international.org
Friends International: http://www.friends-international.org
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – Cybertipline: www.cybertipline.org
Ronald S. Ratney