Five girls between 9-12 years old are safe after being rescued this week from a home in a Filipino slum that had been turned into a cybersex trafficking hotspot.
"I am afraid sometimes when there’s a camera in front of me because I know that it’s bad,” Michella* told a social worker who provided support on the rescue operation.
Children were allegedly being sexually abused for the purpose of producing online child pornography. This crime is a quickly growing phenomenon as high speed internet coverage expands globally.
The Filipino National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) anti-trafficking unit called IJM for help with logistics during the operation and taking care of the young girls.
The operation began early the next morning.
The rescue team rushed into a house in a slum area marred by prostitution, theft and drugs. They found girls waving at a camera attached to the computer. Another sex-abuse show was about to begin. But before anything could happen, the girls were rescued.
One girl explained to authorities that she and the other girls had been asked to stand in front of the computer, remove their clothes, and put on a "show” at least five other times. She said she could see the face of "an old American man” on the computer.
Another girl said she had also been put in front of the camera since 2014. Her relatives were two of the three suspects arrested during the operation.
Most of the children were shy and afraid to share information about what had been going on behind closed doors, in front of a webcam. This is unsurprising given their young age and the trauma they have endured.
The children are now at a temporary shelter where they will receive crisis care. IJM social workers will remain with them and help them transfer to a longer-term aftercare home for survivors of trafficking and abuse.
"This rescue highlights the significant impact that law enforcement agencies can have in combatting the online sexual exploitation of children when they work together,” says IJM Senior Attorney Lisa Guevara-Garcia, commending the joint efforts of the law enforcement agencies.
IJM will track the legal case and help bring charges against the three suspects arrested, and provide ongoing aftercare to the survivors.
Evidence of the abuse and violence was collected during the operation, but building a strong legal case will take time. Lisa adds that today she is more determined than ever to take on this battle knowing that "rescue means these five girls now have the chance to rediscover their childhood, free from fear and abuse.”