It was the half-naked girls running from room to room upon her arrival that made Filipino teenager Ruby fear that the cybercafe job – which she had been offered online – might, in fact, be a sinister scam. Ruby’s doubts turned to despair when her new employers, a husband and wife, dragged her in front of a computer and webcam, and explained that her work would entail stripping and performing sex acts for paying customers across the globe.

“It was like a bomb exploded,” Ruby, now 21, says, speaking in an empty church in Tagaytay city, 60km south of the Philippine capital of Manila. “I had seen cybersex dens in TV shows and movies, but I didn’t know that they existed in real life.”

Ruby had, she adds, been “totally fooled” by the scam. “I was forced to do things you could not imagine a 16-year-old having to endure.”

Ruby is not a rare case but one of a rising number of ever younger victims of cybersex trafficking – a form of modern-day slavery where children are abused and raped over live streams.

The Philippines is seen by rights groups as the epicentre of the growing trade, which, they say, has been fuelled by cheap access to the internet and technology, the high level of English, well-established money-wiring services and rampant poverty.

Some families say, ‘We don’t touch, we just show’
Sam Inocencio, International Justice Mission

The Southeast Asian nation receives at least 3,000 reports per month from other countries of possible cases of its children being sexually exploited online (a number that has tripled in the last three years), according to its justice department.

Yet the crime is difficult to police because most victims are exploited by their own relatives in a country with very high levels of sex abuse within families and a culture of silence in communities that stops people speaking out, campaigners say.

And Filipino abusers and paying clients in other countries are outfoxing law enforcement by mixing up payment methods, turning to cryptocurrencies and broadcasting over encrypted live streams that cannot be traced by police.

The crime is not only growing in the Philippines, but across the region, in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam, activists say.

“This is a global trend, but very evident in Southeast Asia,” says Damian Kean, a spokesman for End Child Prostitution and Trafficking International (Ecpat), a global network of charities that works to end abuse of youngsters. “We are seeing online sexual exploitation of children expand across the region.”

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Victims in the Philippines are getting younger, says Lotta Sylwander, country director for the United Nations children’s agency Unicef. Abusers can earn up to US$100 per show in a country where about a fifth of the total population of 100 million people earn less than US$2,000 a year, government figures show.

“Exploitation begins online […] but often leads into offline physical sex exploitation [and] trafficking,” Sylwander says.

The biggest obstacle to tackling the crime at its source is a widespread belief within communities that making children appear naked on webcam is a victimless act, rights groups say.

“Some families say, ‘We don’t touch, we just show,’” says Sam Inocencio, national director for the International Justice Mission (IJM), an anti-slavery charity. “But we have seen some awful cases where children have been tortured over webcam.”

Driving through the narrow, winding streets of a crowded slum in Manila, local police investigators point to rows of ramshackle homes crowned with gleaming white satellite dishes. At least 40 per cent of the Filipino population had access to the internet as of 2015, up from a quarter in 2010, and about 5 per cent in 2005, according to World Bank data.

Activists are trying to challenge community-wide complicity in the crime by encouraging local council and church leaders, neighbourhood watch groups and social workers to report abuses. Yet contradictions between various laws, few convictions for cybersex trafficking and the fact the age of sexual consent in the Philippines is 12 have all fuelled long-entrenched impunity, campaigners warn.

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“People are not aware of the severity of the crime […] they need to know the laws and their punishments,” says Genesis Jeff Lamigo, a spokesman for global children’s charity World Vision.

No data exists on the number of child victims of cybersex trafficking, but at least 400,000 people in the Philippines – or one in 250 – are estimated to be trapped in modern slavery, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index produced by activist movement the Walk Free Foundation.

The plethora of social-media sites, messaging and video-call apps and online payment services make it easy for Filipinos to connect with global buyers and stream sex abuse undetected.

“The facilitators are following trends in technology,” says William Macavinta, a police chief superintendent in Manila. “This makes tracking them more difficult – it is a challenge to gather digital evidence,” he adds, explaining how anti-money-laundering and cybercrime officials help police to chase leads.

Developed countries, from which the demand for online sex exploitation usually originates, must do their part
Philippines Senator Loren Legarda

Web and online money companies must do more to spot abusers, yet criminals can easily jump between platforms, says an investigator in the United States who tackles cybersex trafficking in that country.

Joint operations with nations such as Britain, the US and Norway could swing the tide as clients realise they can be punished in their home countries, adds the investigator, who will not disclose his name because he is not authorised to discuss his work.

Philippines Senator Loren Legarda urges tougher global action from such countries to lower the demand by raising their penalties.

“Developed countries, from which the demand for online sex exploitation usually originates, must do their part,” she says.

But with cybersex abusers and customers playing a game of cat-and-mouse with law enforcement, Ruby – who endured two months of slavery before escaping – fears that countless other girls will have to endure the same abuse as she did.

While she has been able to rebuild her life with the help of the IJM (she is studying English, with hopes of becoming a lawyer), she weeps as she recalls the suffering of other girls who were trapped in the trade with her.

“They didn’t feel any shame […] they didn’t value themselves,” Ruby says. “Those girls were in a place where they really had no hope.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation