It was lovely to welcome all our fellow travellers and IJM supporters to our exclusive virtual trip to the Philippines field office. Our Pilot, David Pollendine, IJM Canada’s National Director of Development Growth (his day job) and his co-pilot, Anisha Nitin, IJM Canada’s Senior Coordinator of Development Growth, steered us over the South China Sea, the Banaue Rice Terraces and finally landed in the hustle and bustle of Manila. Salamat Po, Thank you!
We were greeted by Atty. Samson Inocencio Jr (Atty. Sam), VP, Global Program against OSEC and our Host Atty. Liza C. Tan, Executive Head, Prosecution Development Cebu Field Office, who shared that she had been working with IJM Philippines for the last 15 years. She introduced us to exquisite Filipino culinary delights such as lechon, mangoes and balut – a fertilized developing egg embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell. We were exposed to some beautiful beaches with white sands and the turquoise waters of Boracay and Palawan.
The rich and beautiful cultural heritage of the Philippines was in full view for us all to see. But despite this scenic backdrop, Atty. Liza explained that there was a darker reality. We gathered with several IJM Philippines lawyers and investigators who shared their casework of online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) and explained how they tackle this hidden crime.
Atty. Reynaldo Bicol, Jr. (Atty. Rey), IJM Philippines Director of the Manila Office, was introduced to us, and shared that IJM Philippines had been working on protecting women and children from modern slavery and violence for over 20 years. This work initially focused on commercial sex trafficking; IJM Philippines, in partnership with the government, successfully minimized the prevalence of minors in this illegal trade. In recent years, their focus has shifted to OSEC.
How big is the problem of OSEC globally?
Atty. Rey explained that OSEC is the abuse of children, both directed and viewed, live over the internet. It is one of the most challenging types of casework IJM faces today. It is so common in the Philippines because English is widely spoken, there is a good availability of internet access and wi-fi, money transfer businesses are common, and money conversation rates are favourable.
Atty. Sam also shared some of the challenges of tackling this crime:
- Internet cafes and wi-fi – these are accessible even in the poorest of areas
- IP addresses are not detectable – due to poor internet infrastructure, finding the source of the abuse is extremely difficult
- Pre-paid SIM cards – these can be used and thrown out, so tracking the identity of users is difficult
- Families and close friends usually facilitate this abuse – a child may be separated from their parents for their own safety, for much, if not all of their childhood (The length of their parent's prison sentence can be anything up to 40 years)
- Global nature of the crime – The facilitator and the victim of the abuse are in the Philippines, whereas the predators and child sex offenders live in Western countries and all over the world.
Jorge Salang shared about the nature of OSEC, some of the challenges it presents and how IJM Philippines is responding to those challenges. Before the onset of the internet, this crime was unimaginable. IJM Philippines had been tackling sex trafficking in physical locations such as brothels, red-light districts and urban settings. The transient nature of the internet now means that sexual exploitation of children has moved into rural settings across 7000 islands in the Philippines. Jorge explained the Philippines National Police are reliant on tips from foreign police forces to apprehend online predators and child sex offenders in western countries who access the abuse on their personal computers. To effectively tackle this crime requires global collaboration between law enforcement agencies.
Jorge also explained how OSEC operates as a supply and demand business with parents or close family relatives (83% of traffickers/facilitators are family and close relatives) facilitating the abuse of children in real-time in the Philippines (Supply/source country). This abuse is sent via social media video platforms to be consumed by individuals in western countries (Demand/consumer countries). Money is wired from demand side countries like Canada, the US, the UK and Australia in real-time to pay for the type of abuse they want to see from the source country.
Jorge shared a case involving a Canadian perpetrator, Philip Chicoine who was arrested in 2017 for abusing children online. RCMP Corporal Jared Clarke flew to the Philippines to testify against Chicoine, and Chicoine was subsequently sentenced to 12years of in prison, but in 2019 after an appeal this was increased to 15years. Jorge shared how Corporal Clarke was contacted just a few months ago to testify against the trafficker in the Chicoine case, and she was sentenced to 2 life sentences. This really brought home to us all that this is global crime which Canada is not exempt from.
Are there any solutions to end online sexual exploitation of children?
While OSEC is a complex crime, IJM is committed to our ‘Theory of Change’ as a tried and tested solution to tackle this online phenomenon. IJM has a proven track record across the globe of ending modern slavery by partnering with governments to strengthen their justice systems. Time and time again, IJM has seen that when perpetrators are arrested and sent to prison for their crimes, the prevalence of modern slavery is reduced. It is quite simple, “when you enforce the law, the violence stops.” This is true for IJM’s work in tackling OSEC in the Philippines. As Jorge comments, “Effective criminal justice systems protect not only the children rescued but also thousands of others who will never be abused.” So, bringing traffickers and perpetrators to justice both in the source country (Philippines) and the demand side country (western countries) is an essential strategy to ending this crime. As Jorge states, this is a global crime which requires a global response. This also means detecting and reporting the abuse carried out globally on internet platforms, and flagging questionable financial transactions which pay for this crime.
How can we work with internet providers and financial institutions to tackle OSEC?
Atty. Sam addressed this question by outlining the need to involve all the community actors, “our role in IJM is to create that environment where a wide array of partners and stakeholders are working together.” This means creating a supportive environment in which there is public demand, political will, and local mobilization for action. Sam emphasised the importance of partnering with a variety of sectors, including the government, churches, law enforcement, finance companies, social media platforms and influencers. IJM Philippines worked closely with the Department of Justice to develop and implement Video-In-Depth Disclosure Interviews (VIDI) which have helped protect victims from being subjected to the trauma of testifying in court.
IJM has successful partnerships with companies in tech and financial sectors such as WestPac, Meta, TikTok, and social media ambassadors like Filipina influencer Amanda Griffin-Jacob. This is really important, because if we want to disrupt the demand and supply of OSEC, partnering with these companies to find effective solutions is crucial.
What is the strategy for IJM’s Success?
Atty. Sam shared how the success of IJM’s work starts with a passion to protect the vulnerable. We employ investigators with a high level of knowledge and expertise in law enforcement, and our impressive attorneys work alongside prosecutors to ensure that justice is brought to traffickers who harm these children. Our aftercare workers are invaluable and provide high level trauma-informed care that brings freedom and hope for survivors beyond their abuse. The glue that holds all this together is IJM’s belief in the accompaniment model. By collaboratively working together we are able to see where the gaps are and fill them when necessary. This model is incredibly successful because by not working independently but rather in partnership with Philippine law enforcement teams, government agencies, and civil society organizations, we can ensure maximum impact through goodwill and government ownership of issues like OSEC.
A look behind the scenes of a rescue operation
Dolores “Dolly” Rubia is a dedicated social worker with more than 20 years of experience who enlightened us all on the process of aftercare for child survivors. The aftercare team are the first responders, and Dolly shared the importance of carrying a simple shawl to rescue. This piece of material plays a crucial role in protecting the child’s identity as it is placed over their head. The aftercare workers bring comfort and security in a trauma-informed way at the point of rescue, and this continues throughout the long journey to restoration. There are many survivors of OSEC who are living proof of this as they speak out as advocates to end OSEC.
The voice that makes a difference.
The most powerful voices in this fight are of the survivors themselves. Recently, a group of Filipino survivors formed the Philippine Survivor Network as part of their effort to make their voices heard in national and global decision-making. It was fun to use the illusion of flying to the Philippines and to imagine we were on a real airplane. We also enjoyed celebrating the work IJM Philippines is doing through the Karaoke song and to see some enthusiastic lip syncing.
However, the highlight of the evening was hearing from our Survivor leader, who despite the abuse and trauma she experienced was able to eloquently share her story and give us hope, but more importantly other survivors hope for the future.
We all have a voice and a part to play in the fight to end OSEC. One effective way is to support the amazing work that happens through our IJM Philippines team. If you are interested in supporting this extremely vital work, please donate today. Thank you for playing your part to bring protection to these children through your support.