A British statutory investigation recently uncovered evidence that highlight failures within the government to protect children abroad from sexual abuse by travelling UK citizens. According to the inquiry, only 11 out of more than 5,000 convicted or cautioned child sex offenders received travel restrictions, and over the last 15 years, only seven offenders were extradited to the country where offending occurred.
The Independent Inquiry for Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2015 after the government raised concerns that organizations were failing to protect children. Recently, the inquiry has investigated the efficacy of a civil order which allows courts in England and Wales to restrict the movements of convicted child sex offenders who pose a risk to children. It also investigated extra-territorial jurisdiction, which allows UK courts to prosecute nationals for sexual offences against children committed abroad.
‘What was clear and concerning to us is that despite existing legislation in the UK and tools to combat the sexual abuse of children both in the UK and abroad, the evidence shows children abroad are still being abused by UK nationals. Clearly legislation can only be useful if it is applied appropriately.” – Bharti Patel, CEO of ECPAT UK.
ECPAT UK and other witnesses have given evidence to the independent inquiry, which highlighted a range of institutional failings, including:
- Lack of awareness.
A widespread lack of awareness and use among UK authorities and NGOs abroad of these legal instruments. Between 2017 and 2018, only 11 out of 5,551 people received foreign travel restrictions after being convicted or cautioned for sexual abuse offences in the UK.
- Only 7 offenders extradited.
Since the introduction of extra-territorial jurisdiction in 2004, only seven child sex offenders were reported to have been extradited from the country where they offended, and prosecuted in the UK.
- No monitoring system.
Between 2013 and 2017, 361 UK nationals sought consular assistance after being arrested for child sex offences abroad, yet it is not known if these offenders were brought to justice either locally or in the UK.
These failings have allowed known offenders to travel abroad and sexually exploit children with impunity.
A lack of coordinated national approach leaving children at risk
The inquiry also highlighted the fact that in the UK, there is a lack of a coordinated national approach across departments and agencies to managing sex offenders and prosecuting offences committed outside the UK. This and other failings have made it difficult to assess the effectiveness of tools designed to prevent child exploitation across borders. It also means that there are clear gaps in the data on the number of travel restrictions issued, and on the number of prosecutions and convictions of UK nationals who have abused children outside the country.
Only 11 out of more than 5,000 convicted or cautioned child sex offenders received travel restrictions.
Offenders deliberately targeting children in countries where they are vulnerable
ECPAT UK has documented offenders deliberately targeting children in countries where high levels of poverty and inequality leave children vulnerable, and child protection systems are weak. Vulnerable children, some as young as six months, have been denied their right to safety and have faced difficulties accessing justice and support. And even though legislation is vital, it cannot tackle the problem alone. When a country adopts stronger legislation, there is a risk that offenders will move somewhere that they can offend with impunity. This includes crimes on the Internet.
Only seven offenders were extradited to the country where offending occurred.
Practical recommendations are to be made
The inquiry will now consider the evidence presented and make practical recommendations to the government to ensure better institutional protection for children in the future. ECPAT UK, with support from ECPAT International, is calling for a comprehensive review of the UK plan of action to tackle child sexual exploitation abroad. More effective use of foreign travel restrictions via the civil orders for known British child sex offenders, to prevent them from offending overseas is needed, as well as the establishment of a coherent national approach to policing extraterritorial offending against children.