PHNOM PENH — ; A new international campaign says it will target potential child sex offenders in Asian countries before they offend, as well as warning pedophiles that they could end up serving jail terms in the United States.
“Abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours.”
John Miller, a top anti-trafficking official in the U.S. State Department, told RFA in a recent interview that while previous campaigns have focused on the victims of child sex tourism, the new initiative will target offenders and potential offenders.
“The problem is also on the demand side,” said Miller, who is ambassador at large for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. “Where do the tourists come from? Many of them wealthy, democratic countries.”
“When I visited Chiangmai in Thailand, which unfortunately has many children who have suffered, I asked the nongovernmental organizations, who is coming to abuse these children? Are they Thai? No, they are men, they said, from the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Australia,” Miller told RFA.
Campaigners estimate that 25 percent of child sex tourists worldwide are Americans. It is estimated that about 2 million children are enslaved in the global sex trade, many of them as young as five years old.
“Where do the tourists come from? Many of them [are from] wealthy, democratic countries.”
They have identified two kinds of child sex offenders—so-called “situational offenders” and the pedophiles. The former are often businessmen or resident expatriates who take advantage of the availability of children to “experiment.”
“We believe, as do other NGO’s, that the majority of these offenders fit into this category simply because of the volume of tourists who are entering these countries,” Joseph Mettimano, who heads the anti-child sex initiative at the Christian charity World Vision, told a news conference.
“The second group are preferential offenders. These are your habitual, intentional sex tourists, commonly referred to as pedophiles.”
The Child Sex Tourism Prevention Project is a joint effort between World Vision, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, funded by a U.S. government grant and private donors.
"A year and a half ago, a 12-year-old girl walks into one of our programs for street children in Phnom Penh. She tells our staffer that she is dating an American. What that meant was that he was coming here on a monthy, bi-monthly basis buying her for a week and having sex with her."
Since 1994, U.S. federal law has prohibited U.S. citizens from having sex with minors abroad. This law was strengthened by the Protect Act of 2003, which has made it easier to prosecute offenders and impose tougher penalties.
Miller said offenders can get up to 30 years in the United States for child sexual exploitation overseas.
Messages informing travelers of the legal consequences of having sex with minors have been posted on billboards and street signs, in tourist magazines, and television commercials, and on the Internet in target countries.
In Cambodia, the campaign has taken a lease on the largest billboard in Phnom Penh, which is the first thing travelers see as they leave the airport heading into the city.
“We’re going for a hard, law enforcement penalty-based message. So, abuse a child in this country, go to jail in yours—prison images, images that these men are gong to respond to,” Mettimano said.
Corruption in the Cambodian police force and local reticence about admitting that sexual exploitation of children goes on still make it hard to catch offenders.
But a new code of conduct among tour operators, hotels, and cruises aims to share information about known sex offenders. And word-of-mouth evidence is often the best source, campaigners say.
“A year and a half ago, a 12-year-old girl walks into one of our programs for street children in Phnom Penh. She tells our staffer that she is dating an American. What that meant was that he was coming here on a monthy, bi-monthly basis buying her for a week and having sex with her,” Mettimano said.
He said the girl had willingly handed over photos and letters to aid workers as evidence.
A year ago, a Cambodian court convicted six Vietnamese citizens of forcing children as young as five into prostitution in Phnom Penh’s notorious Svay Pak brothel district, handing down sentences of up to 15 years for the offenses, RFA’s Khmer service reported.
The four women and three men were arrested during a March 2003 raid on the district, in which 37 underage girls were rescued.
Police were acting on a tip-off from the US-based International Justice Mission, a Christian human rights group which videotaped sex trade transactions in the area.
The girls, all from Vietnam, ranged between five years old and 18.