”When a foreigner asks for ‘flowers,’ the prostitutes know that he’s asking for children”

At the end of September, Childhood’s program director Britta Holmberg was in Thailand and Cambodia to launch the project “Say what you saw” (säg vad du såg) with help from ECPAT Sweden and the Swedish Police. The goal of this collaborative project is to limit the opportunities Swedes have to abuse children in foreign countries. Here, Britta describes a rather special trip.

”Childhood, together with ECPAT, has received money from the Swedish Postcode Lottery to work with the national operations department of the Swedish Police, the national organization against trafficking under the Swedish Gender Equality Agency and Child Safe Movement on a project that is intended to limit the opportunities Swedish perpetrators have to abuse children outside the country. Usually, Childhood´s field trips involve project visits with our partners who work with children and families to reduce the risk of violence and abuse. This time, we’re more interested in abusers: Men who travel to sexually abuse children. Who are they? How do they contact children? How do we find them and, above all, how can we stop them?

Not “a drop in the ocean” but “one child at a time”

Landing in Asia after a long night’s flight can be a disconcerting experience. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the crowds, poverty and defenselessness. Children are so clearly vulnerable in so many ways. The four-year-old helping mom prepare food on the street. The grandma sitting on the back of a scooter and holding her sleeping grandchild – a little baby without a helmet – in the middle of rush hour traffic. The grubby boys collecting plastic recyclables to sell for a pittance. There’s so much that needs to change. Such great need! There’s poverty, deep-rooted social norms, inequality, injustice. It’s easy to feel inadequate and to wonder what we can really achieve. I decided to stop thinking about it as “one drop in the ocean” and instead think of it as “one child at a time”.

In the taxi from the airport in Phnom Penh, a sign reads “Child sexual abuse and child exploitation are serious crimes in Cambodia and will not be tolerated.” We’re met by similar signs in the airport in Bangkok. We’re not the only ones who have taken up the fight against traveling child sex offenders. That’s good. There need to be many of us working together. That’s also the purpose of this trip: to engage more people, especially Swedes living in Cambodia and Thailand and who don’t want to see their countrymen abuse vulnerable children. We’re also going to meet other international players to figure out the best way to work together. Local police resources are limited, and for exploited children it doesn’t matter if their abuser is Swedish or American or Thai. Even if we have a special responsibility to prevent Swedes from abusing children in foreign countries, all of our work needs to strengthen protection for all children and to reduce the burden on local police so that all abusers are arrested, regardless of nationality.

Men who groom entire families

A lot has happened in the last 10 to 15 years. Before, even regular tourists could see small street children flocking around Western men who then drove away with them in a tuk-tuk. White men holding hands with small Cambodian boys on the beach. Children who didn’t look like family members being taken back to hotel rooms. Intensive intelligence work and tough reactions from local police, civil society, the travel industry and individual tourists have made the open sexual exploitation of small children in countries like Thailand and Cambodia disappear almost entirely. But no one we talk to would say that it no longer exists. Abusers have just been forced to develop more subtle strategies. Become more invisible. We already know that men (yes, because it’s essentially always men) who travel with the intent to abuse young children find ways to exploit the extreme poverty and human desperation.

We know that they now rent large houses in the countryside, where they can establish contact with and groom entire local families in peace and quiet by playing the role of the benevolent helper. They look for work or volunteer opportunities at orphanages, schools or churches, where they can come into contact with children who are especially defenseless. They pursue a relationship with a woman who has a child the right age. And they use internet anonymity to create safe zones and networks where they share tips and contacts. Almost everyone we meet says that the usual method for traveling child sex offenders to find a victim these days is the internet and various apps. Sometimes they meet teenagers on dating apps and social networks, who they pay to help them find even younger children. One person we talk to calls it “children on demand.”

The girl with the hula hoop

From the age of four until she was eight, she supported her entire family. Mom and dad, siblings and grandparents. Paid for rent, food and everything else. Her workplace was the main prostitution street, Walking Street, in Pattaya. She stood there for hours every day, with her hula hoop, in the middle of scantily dressed young women with sky-high heels who tried to entice customers behind the bar’s drapery and menus featuring different objects that women can insert into their genitals for money in ping-pong shows. She was small and innocent, but in provocative dress and risqué make up. She was called “hula hoop girl” and was known on Walking Street among regular tourists and sex tourists alike. She did her sexy acrobatics and smiled at tourists who thought she was sweet. Maybe they felt sorry for her and wanted to help. The money meant that she stayed on the streets for four years, an environment where a little girl should never find herself. Especially not dressed so provocatively, clearly signaling that she was dancing for money. But no one else in the family was as cute or earned as much. This at the cost of her entire childhood. And who knows what else.

The girl with the hula hoop isn’t standing on Walking Street anymore. Finally, someone sounded the alarm and she’s now being taken care of by an organization that works to protect children in Pattaya. Today she goes to school, has friends her own age and smiles when she’s happy, not to beg for money. The next time a little girl turns up in the red-light district and tourists visit to “see what it’s like,” I hope someone acts faster.

Street children who beg from drunk men going back to their hotel

“You don’t see children in the red-light district anymore,” most people say. But others say that on so-and-so street, everything and everyone is for sale. We sit in a bar on one of the most infamous streets in Pattaya and watch everything going on around us. It’s obvious that we don’t fit in, but the young women in the bar still smile at us and make friendly conversation. We ask if they ever see minors selling sex. Obviously, everyone answers no. Even if many of the scantily dressed girls with number tags on their chest look rather young, and often dress to look even younger – braces, school uniforms and girlish haircuts – everyone insists that no one selling sex on the street is under 18.

It’s probably true that no one you can see in the more open sex markets, at least on paper, is a minor. The punishment for advertising that a child is for sale is harsh. However, children are still present in these environments, where there’s a clear risk of them being exploited as well. Street children who gather around side streets in the middle of the night and beg from drunk men going back to their hotel. And a little boy, three or four years old, hanging from his mother’s arm while she goes around selling flowers late at night, in an area where men hardly ever buy roses. What is she really selling? On another red-light street we see the same thing. A woman with a small child on her arm, who appears to be selling flowers. We don’t see any suspicious transactions, but our gut feeling is that something is wrong. We contact a local organization that keeps an eye on foreign abusers and ask them to investigate further.

When I come home, I read an old article in Expressen about a Swedish man convicted of abusing a child out of the country. A 70-year-old man convicted of, among other things, raping an 11-year-old girl. She was sold by her mother to a woman who forced her to beg and sell roses to tourists. That was how the man found her. “’When a foreigner asks for ‘flowers,’ the prostitutes know that he’s asking for children and then they contact me,’ explains Pi-Pi, who pays around SEK 100 for ‘the agents’ to provide her with customers.”

What happens to the children?

A particular challenge when it comes to preventing abuse by traveling child sex offenders is the fact that there is very little chance that the child or their family will report the crime. There are a number of reasons for this. A combination of shame and guilt; the fact that the family is dependent on the money and that they feel guilty for having accepted money, food or other gifts; the fact that they’re afraid of the stigma if the community learns what happened, or that they simply don’t realize that what’s happened is a crime.

Most cases that end in conviction have started with someone in the community reacting to something suspicious and tipping off the police or a local organization, such as APLE Cambodia, which works with both Childhood and Ecpat Sweden. Sometimes the tip is enough to warrant observation of a suspect, but not enough to arrest them. In multiple cases, APLE and local police have been able to arrest a suspect during observation, interrupting an instance of abuse. In such cases the evidence is, of course, stronger and the chances of conviction are greater. But for the child, it can be a terrifying and traumatic experience. One of APLE’s analysts explains that children often believe that the police are after them.

And in a manner of speaking, that’s true. A child’s testimony is often needed for a conviction. But most children don’t want to testify. They don’t have faith in the judicial system. They don’t trust that they’re protected. They can’t be sure that testifying will make life better for them. Many times, the child is taken into custody during the legal process. This is to protect them against further abuse and pressure from the abuser and their community.

But the risk is that they’ll be placed in a detention center, which feels like a prison to them. Men are mixed with boys, women with girls. They stay there until the process is over. Sometimes it can take up to three years. Many children run away or change their story to get away as quickly as possible. The legal process for abused children in Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines today is hardly as child-friendly as we would like. But change is on the way. Together with Childhood and Ecpat, APLE is working to create a child-friendly legal process in Cambodia. The police have received training in child-friendly interview methods that have better legal standing and are less terrifying for children. They no longer slam their fists on the table and demand answers to their questions. And in Thailand, the development of more child-friendly operations in a collaborative effort from police, prosecutors and children’s rights organizations is slowly under way. One of the organizations we visit gives out police teddy bears to children being interrogated. Comforting bears from kind police officers who genuinely want the best for the child.”

Text and photo: Britta Holmberg, private