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This article includes discussion of child sexual abuse.

On June 9 the Australian Federal Police’s NSW child protection operations team executed a search warrant on a man’s home in Sydney and arrested him on multiple charges, including possessing child abuse material and procuring a child to engage in sexual activity outside Australia.

A number of electronic devices were seized, including a mobile phone, two laptops and a hard drive.

It was just the latest in a string of busts of Australians obtaining abusive images of children. Low-cost mobile phones capable of capturing high-quality images and video are becoming increasingly ubiquitous, including in developing Asia, and have caused a boom in the online child sex abuse trade in the region.

Now the COVID-19 pandemic is making things even worse. Lockdowns have kept more children at home, increasing the risk of falling victim. Meanwhile the economic pain being inflicted on hundreds of millions of already impoverished people across the region by the (necessary) response to the virus has left them more vulnerable than ever to cajoling from orchestrators of the child sex industry.

“Stay-at-home measures including school closures have limited the usual sources of support for families and individuals such as friends, extended family or professionals,” the World Health Organization said on June 18.

“This further erodes victims’ ability to successfully cope with crises and the new routines of daily life.”

The Commonwealth Lawyers Association said the consequences of the global pandemic for children cannot be underestimated and the “new reality may put more children at risk from predatory offenders than before”.

Technology has made creating and disseminating child abuse images easier and has also allowed easier access for relatively wealthy paedophile consumers in the West.

In recent years the AFP and other Australian authorities have targeted the Philippines as a hotspot — with good reason.

In February the United Nations International Children’s Fund said the Philippines was a major origin point of child sex abuse materials, with 600,000 “sexualised” photos of Filipino children bartered and traded in 2018.

In 2020 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States — a hotline for cases of online exploitation of children — recorded 279,166 reports from March 1 to May 24, the Philippine Department of Justice said. There were 202,605 more incidents reported compared with the same period in 2019.

In 2019 the AFP joined in the creation of the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Center (PICACC), a venture with the Philippine National Police Women and Children Protection Center, the National Bureau of Investigation’s Anti-Human-Trafficking Division, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency, and the non-government organisation International Justice Mission.

“Since its inauguration … PICACC has been firm on pursuing its mission of combating the online exploitation of children,” an AFP statement said of the organisation’s first year. “The online sexual exploitation of children is one of the most alarming forms of human trafficking in the Philippines today.”

Alongside the Philippines, Thailand has been identified as a hub of online child sex abuse by the UN. Earlier this month Thai police said its Internet Crimes Against Children taskforce has rescued more than 100 children during April and May, almost double the number for 2019 and the highest figure since the body’s foundation in 2016.

Safety advocates are pushing Thailand to strengthen its child grooming laws.

Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are also of deep concern but due to their more authoritarian regimes there is a long-standing culture of official silence and denial, and statistics are harder to come by.

Nevertheless it’s encouraging that the Australian government is putting resources into fighting and combating this life-destroying scourge both at home and offshore.

At a time when the government is spending up in Asia, money focused on the trade in places other than just the Philippines would be well spent. As well as protecting children and identifying criminals, it would help build Australia’s flatlining image and influence in the region.

Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831 or the Blue Knot Foundation at 1300 657 380. The Kids Helpline is on 1800 55 1800.