By: Fatima Measham
Many years ago, when one of my uncles learned that I was engaged to an Australian, the first thing he wanted to know was how old my fiancé was.
He found it reassuring that there was only three years’ difference in age, saying that many foreign pedophiles were known to be Australian. I was in my 20s then, so my uncle’s concern was touching and a bit offensive. But it did speak to the enormity of a problem that not many Australians grasp.
For her latest essay in The Monthly, Margaret Simons visited the Philippine city of Angeles, speaking to women in the red light district and meeting the children abandoned by Australian fathers who had gone there as tourists.
The women look like me, though they are much younger. I feel uncomfortable that photos of their children were published in this context. Something in the small faces reminds me of my son.
In reality, Angeles is only one of several Philippine destinations for foreign sex tourists. Given the mix of official complicity (prostitution is illegal), absence of regulation and the sort of poverty that makes choice meaningless, many sex workers are underage. I doubt that tourists would bother checking; brothel-keepers lie.
The same conditions that draw sex tourists to the Philippines draw child pornographers and pedophiles. In February, an Australian man named Peter Scully was arrested for raping and trafficking children.
He allegedly produced child pornography videos to sell online. The body of a 12-year old girl was found at his former house, though he is yet to be charged for murder. The total number of victims varies in reports but since moving to Mindanao in 2011, Scully is believed to have abused between 8 to 11 children, including an 18-month old.
I remember the heavy pall over the phone when my sister and I discussed the case. This man had walked freely in the streets of our home town.
The Scully case, though extreme, is not isolated. In an international police operation in 2014, three Australians were among 11 foreigners arrested in the Philippines for child sexual abuse and pornography. On the one hand, it is no small thing when such arrests are made. They are the result of diligent, collaborative investigations across borders. On the other hand, the scale of abuse exposes failures in harm prevention.
Under the Keating Government, extra territorial offences were brought within jurisdiction, specifically sexual intercourse and various acts of indecency with a child outside of Australia under the age of 16, as well as benefiting from or encouraging such an offence.
In 2010, legislative amendments were made to broaden the scope of offences, adding grooming and procuring sexual activity with a child, as well as preliminary acts. This means, for example, that a person in Australia who makes arrangements with a CST operator overseas could be arrested and charged before he leaves the country. In theory, it enables Australian authorities to take on primary enforcement, thus preventing harm.
In practice it seems that little can be done to keep pedophiles from going overseas. According to the Australian Federal Police, around 250 Australians with child sex convictions travelled to the Philippines in the last four years. Between 1994 and 2011 only 30 people were charged with CST offences, of which 21 were convicted.
There are obvious considerations regarding police resource levels in both countries, as well as the degree of enforcement that can be undertaken without jeopardising innocent people. It can be difficult to establish evidence where criminals assume fake identities or periodically change them, and move around from place to place, as Scully did.
There is also no doubt that the expansion of internet access in the Philippines and cheap international flights have made impoverished children vulnerable. The modus operandi for foreign predators is devastatingly simple: convince parents that their children will be provided with an education, fed, clothed and sheltered.
However, there are factors that are harder to explain and painful to reconcile. In almost every story that I come across involving the abuse of Filipino children involving Australians and other foreigners, at least one Filipino adult knew.
Sometimes it’s the ‘girlfriend’. In one case in Cebu, a Filipino couple was involved.
The complicity is in part about money. Child sex tourism and child pornography command top dollar because of the lengths involved to sustain business. Perhaps for locals involved, making a living has its own morality. They disgust me.
But it is also about a culturally entrenched, implicit trust and hope in white saviours. Once, when a salesperson in the Philippines realised that the white man in her shop was with me, she said ‘Kasuwerte nimo’. You’re so lucky. I was dumbstruck. How on earth do we undo that?
For me, it crystallises some aspects of the problem regarding the sexual exploitation of Filipino women and children by foreigners. As long as they feel disempowered – when their sense of worth is measured by the white male gaze and the dollar – then they will continue to be preyed upon.