30th July 2000
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Paedophiles prosper in paradise isle

  • Tourist Board action 
  • By Kesara Ratnatunga
    Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam - all epito-mize the exotic beauty and alluring mystique of the East. Tourism has become a booming industry in these countries not only fuelling their developing economies with foreign currency, but opening up new and lucrative markets for the locals Sri Lanka falls into much the same category but also shares another dark trait for which these countries are notorious - sex tourism. 

    Poverty being rampant in most coastal areas where tourism flourishes, the sex trade catering to foreigners provides a veritable gold mine. This has led to Sri Lanka becoming a prime hunting ground for a different breed of tourists. 

    Prof. Harendra de Silva of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), a leading activist in the fight for children's rights explains that most paedophiles who enter the country with the intent of abusing children, are often regular visitors. "Because of the money that is in it for them, the relevant parties make the required 'arrangements' for the foreigner," he says. Residents of the area would also be aware of the paedophile's activities. However, paedophiles are usually very generous towards the locals. 

    The infrastructure necessary to make the sex trade as profitable as possible, is set up by pimps, touts and those in the hospitality industry. As a result an environment conducive to the foreign paedophiles (who form the bulk of the market) is set up in which they can easily 'purchase' child sex workers at a low price, and with little risk of being caught.

    Paedophiles sustain themselves and fund their activities in numerous ways. Some rely on a pension that they get from their country of origin. Others operate small businesses like guest houses or shops, which provide them with an adequate income as well as employing a number of locals, thus assuring the allegiance of the local community which is necessary for them to operate discreetly. 

    Now, however, a far more insidious and global paedophile industry is becoming evident. These are the paedophile rings. Paedophile rings consist of a number of paedophiles who set up a group or network by which they exchange information and aid each other's activities. 

    These groups operate in numerous ways. The ring organisers would advertise the children and offer 'package tours' for individuals or groups to come to Sri Lanka. The customer having paid the fee in advance, in the country of origin, makes his way to Sri Lanka, checks into a hotel, which may or may not be part of the package, and meets up with a local contact who supplies him with the children. The pimps and touts who make the ground level connection, receive a certain percentage of the deal. The children themselves would receive only a small sum, perhaps Rs. 200 to 500, while the bulk of the money goes to the ring operators.

    Sri Lanka is but one of many such destinations to which travellers are brought on organised sex-tours. 

    The most horrifying development in the paedophilia issue however, is that of non-governmental organisations (NGOs)involved in the care of children, being infiltrated by the paedophiles themselves. The main intent of these 'wolves in sheep's clothing' is to gain easy access to children they could abuse. 

    Although there has been no evidence of this happening in Sri Lanka, startling discoveries were recently made in Ethiopia. People associated with a leading Swiss based NGO were found to be guilty of sexually abusing children in their care. Similar cases were also reported in India and Vietnam. 

    A startling fact is also the link that each of these key players in the Ethiopian scandal had with Sri Lanka. The researchers who investigated the case stated, "It appears that many of the individuals named in the report had strong links with Sri Lanka and possibly used the country as a base." Among these individuals who were all foreigners, were some who had lived and worked in Sri Lanka.

    A top official of the Swiss NGO, recruited from Sri Lanka was a Canadian by the name of Dennis Benjamin. He was later sacked from the organisation charged with 'single improper relationship with a project beneficiary'. He was discreetly removed from the project and was funded by the Swiss NGO to return to Sri Lanka. Once in Sri Lanka Benjamin worked for a short while but was arrested at a Negombo guesthouse and charged with the offence of 'act of gross indecency between two persons'. The two boys he was caught with were 15 and 18 years of age. He was tried in Sri Lankan courts and fined Rs. 1,500 and sentenced to two years imprisonment suspended for two years.

    It was found that certain officials in the Swiss NGO had intentionally impeded investigations into child abuse activities of a number of its employees by going so far as to withhold evidence, not act upon information and even frame innocent parties. It is the opinion of activists that the cover-up was attempted in a bid to protect the reputation of their organisation. 

    According to a child activist a frightening case was uncovered in the Southern Province recently where students from a leading boys' school were reported to have been shown pornographic videos while being given drugs free of charge. Thus they became hooked on narcotics. Later on, they were asked if they would like to act in videos like the ones they had seen, for a fee. They were paid around Rs. 200 per day, which they used to fund their newly acquired drug habits. It is believed the organisers received around Rs. 20,000 per boy. These videos which are made at a cost of a few thousand rupees, are sold overseas for thousands of dollars.

    "If information regarding a paedophile comes our way, we relay it to the relevant police branch, who act on it as fast as possible. However the problem is that reporting of foreign paedophiles is virtually nil," says a senior police official involved in child protection. The paedophiles' involvement with 'influential people' as well as the social service spheres that some of them are affiliated to, has added to the difficulties in detecting and cracking down on them.

    When a paedophile is caught, the police inform Interpol Sri Lanka through the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), who in turn contact the home country of the accused. The accused can, at the discretion of the authorities, be allowed to stand trial in his own country under its own law or under Sri Lankan laws. 

    Poverty and ignorance on the part of parents are key factors in children being sexually abused. In tourist localities some parents encourage their children to follow and befriend the foreigners in the hope of getting money and gifts. Even when their children are being sexually abused, parents look the other way because of the money involved.

    The only viable solution to this would be the education of those communities and parents as to the implications of their actions on their children.

    Although it is the problem of children being abused by foreign paedophiles that has gained focus, this is only the 'tip of the iceberg' in the whole child abuse issue. However the extent to which this disease has infiltrated Sri Lankan society cannot be dismissed easily. 

    Tourist Board action

    The Ceylon Tourist Board, keenly aware of the problem of child abuse by foreigners has initiated activities to educate the people. The Director of Community and Industry Relations says steps have been taken to inform tourists, via brochures and other propaganda material, of the laws and penalties pertaining to the sexual abuse of children.

    "We mainly concentrate on areas where tourist activities take place, such as beaches, ancient cities as well as potential tourist locations," says the Director. Tourist visas are usually valid for only one month, after which they have to be extended by the immigration authorities. When such an extension is made, it is clearly stated on the passport. "We tell the people that they have the right to check the passport of a foreigner who has been staying for over a month through a Grama Niladhari officer or a police officer." Such precautions are important in detecting paedophiles and other such offenders.

    A system by which immigration authorities, Tourist Board authorities and perhaps even Interpol could combine forces to screen foreigners who extend their visas for long periods of time, would also have a tremendous impact towards curtailing the activities of paedophiles.

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