Online child sex abuse cases in Thailand are set to hit a record high this year, police said on Thursday, with cybersex predators exploiting the new coronavirus crisis to target more children.
The police-led Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC) taskforce has rescued more than 100 children in the last two months – almost double the 53 victims helped in 2018, which was the highest annual figure since its foundation in 2016.
“Children aren’t going to school and criminals are taking advantage of this to look for income during unemployment,” Thakoon Nimsomboon, head of TICAC, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The global spread of cheap, high-speed internet and the rise in mobile phone ownership has fuelled cybersex crimes in recent years, with children from Thailand to the Philippines being exploited over livestreams for paying clients worldwide.
Officials and activists have seen child cybersex abuse worsen under the coronavirus pandemic as families have struggled to earn a living while children have been at home and online, fuelling calls for better child education on internet safety.
Since mid-April, the police taskforce has recovered more than 150,000 files of child sexual abuse material and opened 53 cases. In 2019, they had 72 cases involving 46 victims.
“There is a high possibility that figures this year will reach a record high, especially since officers have time to investigate due to less crime on the streets,” said Pol Col Thakoon, who is also deputy commander of the anti-trafficking unit.
Thailand has ramped up efforts to tackle child sex abuse in recent years, with the 2016 launch of TICAC by the Royal Thai Police, which works hand-in-hand with local non-governmental organisations to track down offenders and their victims.
It has 180 officers who hold full-time positions in other police agencies.
TICAC has investigated more than 280 cases of internet-facilitated child sexual exploitation since 2016, of which 81 are related to human trafficking. The rest are related to sexual abuse and pornography.
Wirawan Mosby, director of the HUG Project, a charity that helps trafficked children, said the government should improve school internet safety policies, especially when children are learning from home.
“Having such high figures is not something to be proud of, and law enforcement is not solving the problem at the root cause,” she said.
Child rights experts are urging Thailand to enact a law that will criminalise grooming of children for sexual abuse, which will help protect them from being sex trafficked.
“Since we don’t have this law yet, children need to become victims first in order to press charges (towards the offender),” said Ms Wirawan. “This is why we need to focus on prevention and educating children.”