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German Thomas Sheller was charged with sodomising four teenagers in Kenya.

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Human trafficking and Child exploitation on the increase during COVID-19

NAIROBI, Kenya, May 30 – The Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection Unit (AHTCPU) has raised a red flag over the alarming and sudden spike in online human trafficking, recruitment and exploitation of children in Kenya, with concerns that the trend will continue for as long as children are at home and online.

Head of the unit, Mueni Mutisya is worried that despite the dusk to dawn curfew and cessation of movement, intelligence reports reveal that human traffickers are capitalizing on the online platform to recruit, groom and exploit children and lure adults feeling the pinch of the emaciated economy as a result of COVID-19.

Last week, a German Thomas Sheller was charged with seven counts for sodomising four teenagers aged between 10 and 13 years in Kisumu and Nairobi.

Local and international organizations attribute the surge in online exploitation of children to the interruption of their physical learning and a change in their daily lives due to confinement affecting many parts of the world.

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Regional Advisor Rachel Harvey estimates that a third of internet users are children (below 18 years) with internet usage increasing by half (50%) following the stay-home orders adopted by most countries to help suppress the spread of COVID-19. 

Whereas the increase is positive for continuity of education and social life, Harvey is warning that it has put children at risk of online sexual exploitation.

“Before COVID-19, it was estimated that there were 750,000 people looking to connect with children for sexual purposes online at any one time. Opportunity and triggers for offending created by containment are likely to have pushed up that number, as well as demand for child sexual abuse materials,” Harvey cautions. 

With limited physical interaction, global trends further single out increased and growing demand for child abuse material. This has given traffickers opportunities to devise new venues of animating the ‘lucrative’ business of sex tourism by leveraging on the online space to prey on susceptible and unwitting users.  

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Internet Crimes against Children Investigator, Detective Lawrence Okoth confirms the nerve-racking trend in Kenya, with the unit based in Nairobi receiving about 300 cases – per day – containing child abuse material and messages meant to lure and recruit victims, “the numbers are quite high and many more actually are not being reported.”

The traffickers are tactical in their approach hence the big and growing number of victims.

According to Okoth, traffickers stalk their victims.

First they identify their vulnerabilities and then offer a shoulder to lean on and camouflaging as ‘good friends’ with ‘common interests’ such that sharing of nudes becomes easy. 

Inadvertently, victims find themselves entangled in a compromising and perilous situation.

“Traffickers build confidence with their victims online by sharing conversations that lead to connection and consequently detach their victims from their parents/guardians. This close connection paves way for physical connection offline,” Okoth explains.

With the newly found ‘friendship’ as a stepping stone to  invade into the victim’s life, traffickers manipulate their victims and whenever their missions are not accomplished, the shared nudes and erotic videos become weapons of blackmail used to force them to comply with any sort of demands which also include abuse of substance.

“In most cases, the traffickers order the victim to recruit other students or their friends and with time, the chain grows and the number of victims multiplies,” Okoth elucidates. 

It has further been discovered that traffickers employ other tactics of observing current trends and creating links with names that children identify and relate with indubitably, “we have come across groups such as Class Eight Revision, KCPE 2020 Class and other names that children easily join without questioning their genuineness.”  

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The bigger concern, Okoth observes, is that children and youth are being recruited and exposed online without the knowledge of their custodians.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Special Representative Valiant Richey, describes ‘the scale as unimaginable and growing’ with, “traffickers recruiting children through many online venues, including social media, game platforms, and chat rooms. They will typically befriend the children, grooming them for sexual activity and then gradually exploit them in various ways.”

A case in point is a 71-year-old German arrested in Nairobi on May 4, 2020 in the company of a 13 year-old boy alleged to have been trafficked from Nyalenda in Kisumu to Nairobi. According to police and doctor’s reports, the boy – one of his victims- was defiled between April 30th and May 4th. It required combined efforts and intelligence of Interpol and DCI to nab the alleged trafficker classified as a serial offender. Thomas Scheller who is in the country illegally faces six counts of trafficking in persons, child pornography and defilement of five boys aged between 10 and 13. He was said to have traveled from Kwale in the Kenyan Coast, to Kisumu and Nairobi counties between February and April 4, 2020 to commit the crimes. The accused was able to lure his victims online before meeting and giving them smart phones he used for communication and sending pornographic material. Scheller violated cessation regulations that prohibit movement to and from the Nairobi Metropolis area to traverse three counties to meet, transport and exploit his victims.  It took the combined efforts and intelligence of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and the AHTCPU to track him and his suspicious online activities.

Due to some of the mitigation measures and restrictions put in place, for example, to block child abuse material, perpetrators in their innovative and complex way of concealing their activities  have resulted to live streaming of repugnant and explicit videos of children to woo and entertain their clients.

In Kenya, detectives have identified different locations in Kibera Slum in Nairobi and   Mombasa where traffickers congregate relatives (mostly children) in sneaky rooms and entice them into sex orgies for purposes of live streaming. 

Terming the situation as a ‘crisis’, Counter Trafficking in Persons Lead at the AHTCPU, Detective David Gitau, voices concerns and difficulties in arresting the perpetrators who disappear as soon as they are done with the live stream that takes about ten to 15 minutes.

“They dismantle and take off by the time we (detectives) get to the area. In most cases, there are no traces left because they take off with their victims who are prepared in advance by the well organized groups,” Gitau explains.

In other instances, the traffickers transmit recorded sex orgies to market their victims whom they later physically link with their clients locally despite the current restrictions in movement. 

“Traffickers would likely film or stream sexual abuse online in exchange for money. In other circumstances, traffickers might advertise sex with the children and then arrange for meetings with clients,” Richey elucidates.

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With a growing number of victims and with skeleton workforce due to social distancing orders and limited movement, Gitau is concerned that rescue efforts have been affected.

“Like now when we rescue victims, where do we take them? We work with partner organizations to provide shelter for the victims and now most of them have no space to take them in. We are forced to house them in our government facilities which are ill prepared for such big numbers.”

According to Harvey, interruption of child protection services is a global challenge that has reduced opportunity for children to access help and requires urgent intervention.

Post coronavirus projections point at a surge in human trafficking with the economic meltdown attributed to COVID-19, increasing vulnerability of more victims who will be seeking to escape poverty and joblessness.

 “We have a huge pool of vulnerable people ready and willing to be trafficked and with severe migration rules expected in future, unethical groups are working to pounce on vulnerable children,” Gitau warns.

With an ease in movement, the detective is further warning that the already recruited victims have been prepared for trafficking within and outside the country to meet their exploiters.

“Trafficking is going to be a boom. The online platform is the preparatory phase to recruit and keep would-be victims. Recruitment is happening online and will eventually lead to exploitation and movement within and outside the country.”

Harvey is urging anti trafficking and children protection stakeholders to respond proactively to the current crisis but also prepare for the long-term impact since the end of containment does not translate to automatic end of trafficking and exploitation of victims, “not all risks to children online will turn into harms – steps can be taken by a range of stakeholders to mitigate risk.”

In the current circumstances of lockdown and with more children online, the AHTCPU in Nairobi is advising parents to monitor their activities and report any suspicious intruders as they are likely to be preying on their next victims.

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Judie Kaberia is a fellow of the 2020 Resilience Fund of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime

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