Online child sexual abuse is rising as countries close schools and impose various levels of lockdown to contain the new coronavirus pandemic, children's rights advocates in Southeast Asia warn.
"Europol, the U.K.'s National Crime Agency, the Swedish Police Authority and others have already seen an increase in online child sexual exploitation since COVID-19 lockdowns," says John Tanagho, the field office director for the International Justice Mission in the Philippines, a country at the epicenter of online sexual abuse of children.
"We're talking about on-demand, child sexual abuse and exploitation that is being livestreamed from traffickers in the Philippines to child sex offenders around the world, primarily in Western countries," he says. "The sex offenders go online and they connect with these traffickers and then they'll direct them and pay them to sexually abuse children of specific ages in specific ways and to livestream that abuse."
Tanagho adds, "They use the same platforms that the rest of the world use to communicate with friends, family and coworkers."
Advocates in other Southeast Asian nations such as Cambodia and Thailand also acknowledge the higher risk of child abuse at this time.
"It's definitely a concern," says Rosario Hernández, development officer of the Cambodian nongovernmental organization Action Pour Les Enfants, which runs programs for child victims of sexual abuse. Cambodia closed its schools because of the coronavirus last month.
"Children are more at home, therefore they [are] using the Internet more," she says, "and predators can be at home more as well and definitely, you know, soliciting [grooming] more."
This year her organization has received over a dozen calls to its hotline for victims and tipsters, most of them having come since schools closed in March.
In addition to stay-at-home rules, layoffs have begun in various sectors in Cambodia and elsewhere, which is compounding economic problems. Although it's taboo in Cambodian society to exploit one's children for money, Hernández says, "people sometimes go through desperate measures because they're hungry."
None of this surprises Marie-Laure Lemineur, of Thailand-based ECPAT, part of an international network advocating to end sexual exploitation of children.
"Law enforcement across the region have reported that there is an increase and some of our members have also reported they are seeing changes in the modus operandi of the offenders seeking children," Lemineur says. She says Australian police has reported it is seeking to investigate child sex networks as well.
More brazen, offenders are eschewing the dark web for more conventional platforms, says the Philippines-based Tanagho.
Authorities in the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand are known to be cooperating with the nongovernmental groups on the issue. Advocates suggest greater law enforcement coordination worldwide, though they acknowledge staying ahead of the predators is incredibly difficult.
That's why Tanagho wants Internet companies to better police their platforms when it comes to livestreaming or otherwise sharing pornographic content.
The danger extends to the United States as well. Last month, the FBI warned that COVID-19 school closings would lead children to spend more time on the Internet, raising the risk of abuse.