The global financial crisis has hit hard at the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and child protection agencies that fight child sex crimes in South East Asia.
Funds are running low, and the child sex tourism industry has boomed.
Now a US study has found that sex offenders from Australia are a big part of the problem in Thailand.
A report from the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University found that sex offenders from Australia topped the list of foreigners involved in child sex tourism in Thailand.
Its executive director, Mohamed Mattar, says the economic downturn means plenty of cheap flights and more children and women living under the poverty line.
“We found that casual tourism and business is part of the problem. So you have a businessman, he goes abroad, and then he would like to have some sex on the side, and he would maybe go for younger boys or girls,” he said.
Child sex trafficking may be booming, but donations to NGOs are not.
The Cambodian Children’s Painting Project is one of 450 NGOs in Cambodia struggling to survive the global financial crisis, as manager Felix Brooks-Church explains.
“We’re an art-based project working with about 100 of these children and our whole focus is to use art as therapy and also as a means to get them off the beach, alternative income and into schools with full sponsorship,” he said.
“Our donations have really dropped. We run on a budget of about $3,000 a month and that feeds over 100 kids, schools them. That [has] probably dropped down to $2,000 if not less.”
The project has just launched a paintings roadshow in Australia to boost their funds.
“What’s remarkable about this piece, and more so the artist, is Sok Piset is 15 years old but he is extremely mentally handicapped, probably learning and acting like a five-year-old,” Mr Brooks-Church said.
“But he is able to create these works of art that surpass – as far as abstract and impressionism – surpasses any of the other children.”
Cronulla Sharks chairman Damian Irvine was auctioneer at the charity event.
“We should be more charitable in the harshest financial climate, as opposed to cutting back. That is where you must expend all your assets,” he said.
Mohammad Mattar says Australia’s law against child sex tourism could be more effective if it is fully implemented.
“The problem is that you’re talking about a trans-national crime, you’re talking about a distance, you’re talking about sex crime, you’re talking about a crime that involves children and all these are very complicating factors when you want to prosecute cases of child sex tourism,” he said.
But Bernadette McMenamin, the CEO of Child Wise Australia, says the law is not good enough.
She is lobbying the Federal Government to introduce amendments, which include higher penalties for preparatory offences.
“These changes include preparing to travel overseas to sexually abuse a child; so if there is firm evidence, witness, flight tickets. It also includes grooming a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation overseas,” she said.
“So we are focusing on the prevention before the sexual acts happen.”
Sydney art lover Justine Carter was the winning bidder at the auction, buying Sok Piset’s painting for $1,300.
“It is absolutely beautiful and personally I think I got a bargain. Knowing the history and what happened behind it, that money can go to that child and go to that community and it’s just absolutely fantastic,” she said.
But the extent of the problem is so broad it will take a lot more auctions and many more donations to keep the fight against child sex tourism in Cambodia going.