Busting the myth: are foreigners fuelling demand for child trafficking?

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By Sheila Varadan, Senior Associate at Embode.

One of the first images that likely comes to mind when speaking about child sexual abuse and trafficking is that of the foreign perpetrator. It’s usually a Caucasian Western male in handcuffs being led away by police. The idea that demand from ‘foreigners’ is the reason why children get trafficked into sexual exploitation is a myth that needs to be debunked.

In truth, there is no established link between an offender’s nationality (or ethnicity) and their propensity to perpetrate child sexual abuse. And in fact, research has suggested that a substantial number of perpetrators sexually abusing trafficked victims are either locals or nationals from the same region as their victims.

Why, then, are foreigners constantly seen as the primary predators of trafficked children?

Three reasons:

  1. First, and quite frankly, foreigners stand out. Where a local may be able to evade outward attention by speaking the same language as the victim or feigning to be a parent or family member, a foreigner cannot.
  2. Second, arrests and convictions of foreigners tend to attract more media attention, giving the misleading impression that more perpetrators are foreign than local. Also, and related to this, the rates of foreign arrest and conviction for child sexual exploitation are often confused for rates of perpetration of child sexual exploitation. There is no reliable data on the number of perpetrators engaging in sexual exploitation of trafficked children – only rates of arrest and conviction. And more often than not, arrest and conviction rates are higher amongst Western countries due to their proactive stance on child sexual abuse overseas, and their well-resourced criminal justice systems.
  3. Third, and importantly, the culture of silence and impunity can enable child sexual abuse at the local or domestic level. When a foreigner commits child sexual abuse, it is easier for a community to react as the perpetrator is an outsider, but when the perpetrator is from within the victim’s own community, or in a position of power within the community, the issue of accountability becomes much more complicated. The problem of impunity can be further magnified where there are larger issues surrounding rule of law and corruption.

The bottom line is, anyone can sexually exploit trafficked children. Perpetrators of child sexual exploitation are from all walks of life, all demographics and represent all ethnicities.

About the author: Sheila is currently pursuing a doctorate in Child Rights Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. For further information, please contact sheila@embode.co

This blog post was written to coincide with a series of short videos launched by IOM X aiming to bust myths about human trafficking for sexual exploitation, which featured Embode Director Aarti Kapoor amongst other technical experts in the field. Check out the full series.

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