Advocating for greater mobilisation of the informal economy in the fight against sexual exploitation of children in the travel and tourism industry

The International Bureau for Children’s Rights[1] is among the 63 organisations that contributed in 2016 to the production and launch of the ground-breaking Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism[2]. It found that the risks of child sexual exploitation are increasing and that they out-paced every attempt to respond at the international and national level. One of the key findings of this Global Study is the parallel growth of the travel and tourism sector worldwide, as well as the sharp increase in the magnitude of the sexual exploitation of children occurring through this very industry.

Since 1996, a multi-stakeholder initiative led to the launch of the “Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism”, with the mission to provide awareness, tools and support to the tourism industry to prevent the sexual exploitation of children[3]. In early June, the International Summit on Child Protection in Travel and Tourism[4] held in Bogota offered an occasion to take stock of the impact of various strategies to prevent the exploitation of children, including the promotion of this Code.

During the International Summit, various large players of the global travel scene, including hotel chains, tour operators, airline companies and national tourism boards, presented their experience in promoting actions within their business and supply chains to prevent and address the exploitation of children. Most presentations highlighted the long list of actions taken, commending the sector for being proactive in their social responsibility towards children. 

While is it highly laudable that most large actors within the travel and tourism industry have begun to take their responsibility to protect children in their premises and services, a question remains: why is there a sharp increase in the number of children being sexually exploited through the travel and tourism industry, while at the same time a great proportion of the larger players of that industry have embraced the Code and have undertaken bold actions to prevent such crimes?

One of the most interesting feature of the travel and tourism industry is its innovative and changing nature. The way travellers move around the world today is different from 20 years ago – and is also different from only five years ago. The industry is moving fast. It seems less and less likely that offenders will travel to a hotel chain or book a tour with a well-known operator if they have the intention of exploiting children. Even the arrival of brokers such as “Airbnb” seems already a well-established “mainstream” industry (Airbnb is now part of the code) rather than a new trend in the sector. The Global study sheds light on the fact that more and more travellers, including potential offenders, may use one-to-one accommodation booking systems, select more and more remote locations to perpetrate their abuse, and use grass-tour services for their travels rather than larger brands and venues, as they want to stay away from the most well-known projectors in order to avoid being caught. More popular forms of travels, including voluntourism, eco-stays and home-stays, are made possible with the continued expansion of information and communication technologies, allowing for new ways of arranging travels and accommodation, while directly and anonymously liaising with potential victims. Meanwhile, the sexual exploitation of children occurs in more diverse locations, including zero-star guesthouses, local neighbourhoods, centres where volunteers are deployed in direct contact with children and massage parlours. The Global study also reveals the evolving and complex profiles of offenders, ranging from business travellers to humanitarian aid workers, expatriates, peacekeeping mission personnel, retired travellers, volunteers, and first and foremost situational offenders. Both suppliers and intermediaries are increasingly informal and diverse.

With such evolutions in travels habits, a critical category of actors in the action against the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the travel and tourism industry resides in the small-scale, informal or non-formal sector. From the community point of view, the children who fall prey to this vicious trade are “seen” by those women and men who work in the street, who are close to these tourism sites, and who are largely ignored by current prevention of voluntary codification measures.

In Costa Rica, the International Bureau for Children’s Rights, together with its national partner Fundación Paniamor[5], has pioneered a project reaching out to these informal actors, such as taxi drivers, canteen operators, individual sellers of various product in the streets where travellers are found, association of surfers, self-made guides or sellers at local markets and beaches that attract tourists. As any typical NGOs, the Bureau initially approached the work with the usual sequence of activities, producing training material, and organising workshops for the informal sector to be sensitise to this reality. But these approaches were largely unsuccessful. Initially, the Bureau failed to recognise that some of these actors were uneducated and illiterate; they were therefore reluctant to be caught in a situation where a lot of paper work would be provided to them. Producing complex material to build their capacity proved ineffective. Also, it was wrong to think that those who earn their living by being present on the spot where tourists are located would leave their place of revenue to attend “formal” workshops. Many of these entrepreneurs operate with some form of irregularities, often without permits, and not always declaring their revenues to the authorities. Hence, approaching these actors with formal processes proved to be unsuccessful, as they did not want to attract attention or to be publicly identified as gaining some revenues in non-formal ways.

In a second wave of action, the Bureau diverted its energies to work with association of young people, training them in the issue, what to do, how to report possible cases, what are the consequences and how the social norms should not tolerate such exploitation of children. With these young people, the Bureau then approached these informal workers on site. It required creativity. Taxi drivers are less busy in mid-day, therefore this was a good time to reach them. Meanwhile, canteens were less busy between lunch and diner periods, and sellers on the beach were more receptive at sunset. Hence, each sector needed a targeted approach. The idea was to create three sessions of about 20 minutes each. Each session was made of three key messages. Young people visited the workers during the appropriate period of the day and pitched their first session with them. A week alter, they came back and continued with the second session, and so forth. Each time, new colleagues joined the discussion, prompting young people to dive and hosting simultaneously sessions 1 and 2 with different groups, keeping track of who received what type of “training”, to ensure that all of them received the full training in the course of the various visits. The workers appreciated the fact that the interventions were made by young people from their community, that we cared enough to meet them on their working spot, that the young people were well trained and persistent. Surfers are rarely empowered. This activity allowed them to see themselves as actors in their community. On their own, they brought the messages and material to other surfer associations in other areas. They also liked the fact that the sessions were accessible, free of charge simple and concrete.

In Madagascar, the tourism industry is also on the increase, with a 20 to 25% growth yearly in the past three years. At the same time, a recent study conducted by the Bureau in Madagascar shows the devasting effect of violence against children, including commercial sexual exploitation. In a country where the informal economy represents around 25% of the gross domestic product, the fight against the exploitation of children in the travel and tourism industry cannot afford ignoring the women and men working in those small businesses. Hence, initiatives were also piloted in recent years, with the support of UNICEF, leading to the development of tailored codes of conduct for the local association of taxi drivers and the local union of canteen operators. The Malagasy experience also shows how it is possible to standardise practices even when the economy is informal, working with informal and formal professional associations to encourage engagement and monitoring.

Engaging the informal sector requires creative and adaptative approaches in order to really instill a lasting change. Such practices offer promising avenues to engage the travel and tourism industry from a much closer point of view to where abuse and exploitation are taking place. It is time to expand the perspective. It remains however that the informal economy is only a part of the concerted action required to address effectively the sexual exploitation of children in the travel and tourism industry. How can we ask sellers on the beach to report suspicious cases to the police if the latter is corrupt and target them with random operations to steel their revenue and arbitrarily detain them? How can we ask taxi drivers to contact a hotline if the latter has the reputation to fail to maintain confidentiality and does not follow-up on the cases it received? How can we ask local restaurant to speak out if the justice system does not press charges and that retaliation may happen? How can we convince families who host tourists who volunteer in the local day care centre to act and prevent sexual abuse if it seems to threaten the only source of revenues of several families? Clearly, corporate social responsibility towards children in the travel and tourism industry is a pivotal area of action that needs to be strongly connected within the larger mission of strengthening the overall child protection system. Without it, isolated action with the private sector provides a nice façade for promotion purpose without achieving the lasting goal of protecting children against commercial sexual exploitation.

Author: General Director of the IBCR, Guillaume Landry

Photo: Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourisme, 2016