Globally, the majority of child sexual abuse material is now exchanged via non-commercial channels such as public peer-to-peer platforms, or on the dark web. Photo: EPA-EFE
by Silvia Mera
by Silvia Mera

How the internet fuels sexual exploitation and forced labour in Asia

  • Understanding the myriad ways criminals use technology to facilitate trafficking and abuse will help counter them. With Asia becoming ever more connected, the authorities must move faster to unmask criminal online platforms
The Asia-Pacific accounts for half the world’s internet usage. It is also home to some 25 million modern-day slavery victims, trapped in forced marriages, sexual exploitation and forced labour – 62 per cent of the 40.3 million modern-day slaves.

With information and communications technologies so rapidly disseminating in both urban and rural communities, what role is technology playing to facilitate human trafficking and exploitation in the region? While examples of the good uses of tech are often featured, it is crucial to understand how it is also used for evil purposes, in order to fight perpetrators with their own tools.

Traffickers increasingly use the internet, gaming sites and social media to ensnare their victims. For example, in Vietnam, women and girls have been lured by criminals who posed as police officers on social media or through online dating relationships to gain their trust, only to then sell them to gangs that exploited them for sex.

Cybersex is a billion-dollar industry that bridges the distance between offer and demand for sexual services from thousands of miles to one click and is used extensively by traffickers to exploit their victims and more easily hide from police raids. The cybercrime industry trapped “Mira”, a North Korean girl, for eight years. Growing up in North Korea, Mira used to buy USB sticks loaded with foreign movies at the underground market. Technology brought her a glimpse of an outside world she desperately wanted to reach. Reality proved to be harsher: once she fled to China, she was sold to a Chinese-Korean sex-cam operation and told she had to provide online sexual services to repay her debt.

Even worse, technology is misused to exploit children for sex. According to an NGO report, 95 per cent of commercial sexual exploitation of children happening in South Korea is arranged over the internet. In the Philippines, tens of thousands of children are victims of webcam sex tourism – forced by their communities, and sometimes their own parents, to perform sexual acts for customers who watch online and pay as little as US$10 per show.

An investigation in a village near Manila found that this business is so lucrative that some villagers had given up fishing and factory work and started a cybersex business with an old laptop. The children’s families think that cybersex is not pornography and won’t negatively affect the children, since no physical contact happens.

Globally, the majority of child sexual abuse material is now exchanged via non-commercial channels such as public peer-to-peer platforms, or on the dark web. Since payment through credit cards is risky, users barter encrypted files of abuse material, which become a currency, or cryptocurrencies, which help hide the identity of the transactors.

The internet is also used to traffic children for illegal adoptions. A few years ago, Chinese authorities rescued over 300 babies and arrested over 1,000 people suspected of trading them using an online system that included four websites, online forums and 30 groups on a popular Chinese messaging platform.
Technology also encourages “voluntourism”, where people travel to developing countries to do social work, such as helping out in orphanages. The term “orphanages” is sometimes misleading: an investigation in residential care facilities in Cambodia found that 80 per cent of the children still had a living parent. However, these types of holidays – often booked online – are so lucrative for the organisers that institutionalisation is encouraged as a result.

Not as much is known about what negative footprint technology has on labour exploitation, a crime that affects millions of people in Asia. The region hosts extended supply chains for a number of sectors, where commodities are sourced, processed, assembled and shipped worldwide. Parallel to the supply chains of things, there is another chain – one of moving human beings.

In 2017, there were 62 million international migrants in the Asia-Pacific and more than 100 million migrants around the globe were from countries in the region. The majority of them move in search of better economic opportunities. These economic migration flows are seldom straightforward, and often composed of multiple nodes of middlemen and recruiters. Most cases of debt bondage and trafficking happen at some point during this process, sometimes trapping the victims in a situation of slavery even before they leave their hometown.

While traditional recruitment channels are still widely used, as the internet becomes more accessible, more and more migrant workers go online to seek information on job opportunities. The flow of information on informal platforms, however, empowers the person providing information on the job to manipulate or hide part of the terms and conditions.

Jobseekers’ complete trust in social media worsens the problem. Research from the University of Southern California showed that Filipino jobseekers trust comments on Facebook posts more than the guidelines on their government’s employment website.
As more and more rural communities gain access to the internet, it is crucial for governments to earmark resources to unmask and blacklist fraudulent platforms, as well as to spread awareness among jobseekers on necessary “online due diligence”. Stricter and better regulations should be put in place to determine accountability and responsibility for technology companies – following the case in the United States.

Collaboration and intelligence sharing among governments is also critical. This would be particularly effective between countries at the two ends of economic migration “corridors”, which usually have formal agreements in place but lack adequate monitoring and implementation systems.

Silvia Mera is programme director at the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based anti-slavery NGO. Twitter: @Silvia_Mera

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beware the many evils spawned by march of hat accompany technology