Child protection organisations in Kenya say more needs to be done to protect young people from exploitation by overseas perpetrators, as the country reports a rising number of abuse cases.
The warning follows the arrest of Gregory Dow, a 61-year-old missionary, who last month pleaded guilty in a US court to sexually abusing girls at an orphanage he ran in Kenya.
It also comes after Kenyan authorities charged a 71-year-old German national in May on counts of trafficking, defilement, indecent acts and child pornography.
Mueni Mutisya, the head of Kenya’s anti-human trafficking and child protection unit, which launched in 2016, said that between 2018 and 2019, the unit rescued 230 children from local and international perpetrators.
She told the Guardian that trust in white people by many Kenyans, particularly in those offering to support their families, makes children an easy target for abusers from the west.
“The black people here view the whites as superior beings, and the whites know that and they take advantage,” said Mutisya.
“These are people that are living in abject poverty, so when someone promises that they’re going to get your children an education, that they’re going to feed you, these people will go for that,” she said.
There are concerns that the coronavirus lockdown could increase online abuse.
The WeProtect Global Alliance has issued a briefing warning of a “greater risk of sexual exploitation online, including sexual coercion, extortion and manipulation by offenders”, as well as “live-streaming abuse in home environments” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Perpetrators are busy grooming children, capturing them and waiting for the right moment when this lockdown is done,” warned Paul Adhoch, the executive director of Mombasa-based anti-trafficking NGO Trace Kenya. He said abusers use social media to meet children online, and in some cases pay for them to travel to places such as Mombasa, a city on the Kenya coast.
Kenya’s idyllic beaches are a popular tourist destination. But they are increasingly attracting abusers from Europe and the US, after countries in Asia clamp down on sex tourism.
The anti-human trafficking and child protection unit opened a branch in Mombasa in February.
Adhoch says one way perpetrators reach vulnerable children on the coast is through so-called “beach staders” – men and women who approach tourists on the beach to sell them activities or experiences.
Some will say they want to sell a safari, or a massage, but “then sooner or later, they’ll ask if you would like to have fun with a little boy or girl”, said Adhoch.
Beach staders act as fixers for abusers. According to Adhoch, they are often seen as local heroes in poorer coastal communities for connecting teenage girls and boys with wealthy tourists. Families in these areas know what the staders do, said Adhoch, but will often turn a blind eye if their children are given money or gifts.
“These little gifts and privileges make the children feel privileged, until it dawns on them that they are actually victims of abuse,” he said.
Adhoch said Trace Kenya has counselled girls who were filmed naked for a live-stream to the US, with payment made in Bitcoin. The girls did not think they were victims because they were not engaged in sexual acts, he said.
Kelvin Lay, the director of global operations at Overwatch, an organisation that has been supporting Kenyan police in its investigations, said the live-streaming of abuse identified in Kenya raises concerns that a trend similar to that in Asia could be emerging.
“Individuals in countries like the UK and the US will engage and direct the sexual abuse of children over a video or phone camera,” said Lay, who previously worked as an investigator at the UK’s National Crime Agency. “Then at some point, that isn’t sufficient for them any more, so they jump on a plane.”
The anti-human trafficking and child protection unit is using digital forensics to protect children and track potential perpetrators in Kenya, said Mutisya.
Cases of alleged abuse have been brought to the attention of the unit by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline.
Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter are obliged by US law to flag reports of concerning material to NCMEC, which then refers them to national governments. In 2019, Kenya received 12,788 reports from NCMEC.
Last year, the NMEC made 1.8m referrals across Africa. According to Lay, most of the referrals will not have been investigated because Kenya is the only country on the continent with a secure link to the centre.
The anti-trafficking unit will soon begin using artificial intelligence software to quickly “prioritise, sort and categorise the referrals”, said Lay.
Mutisya said that her unit, which has received funding from the UK, gets alerts from the British government if someone with a record of child sexual abuse travels to Kenya. She called on other countries to do the same.
“If we get such alerts we’re able to monitor such persons, and it would help us a lot in preventing further offending,” she said.