Hope for Justice has seen a steep rise in the number of online grooming cases linked to human trafficking and exploitation.
Of the 44 young survivors of sex trafficking who joined our Cambodia Lighthouse during the 12 months to January 2022, 39 of the girls (89%) were first groomed and recruited online through mobile phones.
All of the survivors who were targeted are aged 13 to 18. Thankfully these girls were brought into the safety of our Lighthouse, a short-term care centre where they received shelter, food, medical checks, counselling and other trauma-informed support.
Our Cambodia Director, Maggie Crewes, said that Covid was a major cause of the increase: “During the pandemic we have seen a significant rise in the primary contact for children being exploited. Brokers pivoted quickly – recruiting these girls online enables the trafficking to be better hidden and gives perpetrators increased access to young girls.
“It is no longer the broker appearing in a poor village or town, negotiating or making false promises to parents of a job or training in the city, but exploitation is primarily started through online contact and relationships.”
Grooming is when a perpetrator befriends a child to gain their trust, and then lures or coerces them into sending sexual or nude images or videos of themselves, which are then shared online.
The most common story that our team in Cambodia has heard involves children using smartphones during Covid to access their studies online. The girls use TikTok and other social media sites to connect with new friends. They upload photos of themselves that are seen by an unknown adult who then targets them. Online groomers establish contact, pretend to be a peer of the same age and begin to groom the girl by giving praise, complimenting her appearance, and developing a ‘relationship’ whereby they pretend to be their boyfriend. After establishing trust, the perpetrator asks for nude photos, which they then use to blackmail the victim.
Maggie said: “Traffickers use the images to extort the girl’s trust. They make threats such as ‘If you don’t send me more photos, or send me a photo of your sister, friend, cousin, I will send this photo to your parents, boyfriend, teacher…’ or ‘If you don’t meet me offline I will send these photos to…’ Eventually they meet offline and abuse these girls. When they meet in person, the girl discovers the person they’ve been speaking to is actually an adult male. The girls don’t know how to escape from the exploitative relationship. The next step is that the perpetrator introduces the girl to others and makes further threats such as ‘If you don’t sleep with my friend, I’ll send your nude photo to…’
“Unfortunately parents have low level awareness of the dangers of children being online unsupervised. A smartphone bought for education during Covid quickly becomes a tool for brokers to groom and exploit young people, blackmail them and very quickly they end up being exploited both on and offline, even trafficked to another country and being psychologically traumatised and damaged.”
Unicef report that there is no official data on the extent of Online Child Sexual Exploitation (OCSE) in Cambodia, however according to the Initial Situational Analysis on OCSE, which was led by the Cambodia National Council for Children (CNCC) in 2020, 80% of Cambodian children who participated in the survey reported that they do not feel completely safe on the internet, and 60% shared that they had witnessed or experienced OCSE through grooming by strangers and receiving pornographic materials.
Traffickers use a range of manipulative tactics to groom young people, such as offering their victims loans if they send photos or exploitative content. They change their contact numbers and SIM cards to avoid being traced by law enforcement. They also give false names to conceal their identities. Sadly, they target some of the most vulnerable children.
In our experience, the girls at our Lighthouse were vulnerable, lonely and often coming from broken backgrounds, with unhealthy or severed relationships within the family unit. At the time when they were targeted, these young girls were searching for belonging and love.
Through our programmatic work, Hope for Justice is responding to the effects of online exploitation. Our trauma-informed approach ensures that girls affected by physical, emotional and sexual abuse, receive the right care and response. We train our clients on the dangers of online OCSE and how to stay safe online.
We are also working to prevent online exploitation from happening in the first place. We have conducted a needs assessment with a view to carrying out prevention work in 2022 aimed at reaching vulnerable young people as well as caregivers and parents, to educate them about the dangers and risks of online.
Maggie Crewes said: “We have joined together with the government and other organisations to fight against online grooming, care for the girls already abused and exploited, and help support work towards preventing this and raising awareness of this danger with young people themselves as well as with caregivers and communities.”
Evidence is also mounting across the countries where we work, with similar rises seen in the UK and USA.
The new Hope for Justice Learning Academy is offering training for parents and anyone else who wants to ensure that children and teenagers are protected online.
Visit Hope for Justice Learning Academy | Human Trafficking Online Training | Online Training to find out more.