A couple of weeks ago the international development secretary Penny Mordaunt announced the launch of a new global sex offender register. The programme called ‘Operation Soteria’ after the Greek goddess of safety and protection, was set up by the Department for International Development working with Interpol and Association of Chief Police Officers’ Criminal Records Office (ACRO).
Its aim is to assist charities in the aid sector when recruiting and investigating future and present staff. It is hoped that the project will prevent organisations from hiring high-risk suspects and will increase the chances of sex offenders being arrested.
As part of the programme, specialists and investigators are due to be deployed to work across Africa and Asia to provide support to national criminal bureaus in host countries.
According to reports, the first year of the project will focus on testing an online platform, which will also provide a secure space to upload concerns about employees. It is thought that travel restrictions could be imposed.
As lawyers who represent survivors of abuse overseas, we welcome the initiative which aims to prevent British perpetrators from exploiting children abroad. In the past we have called for a number of measures including the stricter imposition of travel bans against convicted sex offenders, more thorough checks by organisations to ensure that their overseas employees or volunteers do not use them as springboards to access and abuse children, and the continued cooperation with foreign law enforcement agencies to ensure that British child abusers cannot operate with impunity no matter where they are.
Whilst relevant safeguards will need to be implemented alongside some of the proposed measures, an appropriately managed ‘Soteria’ could be a large step in the right direction.
As well as preventing offenders from using employment within the aid sector to target children, another area of concern remains sex tourism, which continues to put children at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Only recently it was reported that Douglas Slade, a convicted British paedophile currently in prison for child abuse and rape, is being sued by four young men and one teenage boy for "personal injuries arising out of sexual abuse" which are alleged to have been committed by Slade whilst he was living in the Philippines. A civil trial took place earlier this month before the High Court in London with the judgment pending.
Slade’s criminal convictions relate to sexual abuse in the UK between 1965 and 1980 when Slade was involved with the notorious groups called ‘Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE)’ and ‘Paedophile Action for Liberation (PAL)’. Suspicions of members being involved in the sexual abuse of children were raised repeatedly throughout the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Slade had been a PIE member throughout the existence of the group and according to a survivor, had boasted about being one of its founding members.
Slade's involvement continued until a number of investigations finally put an end to PIE's existence in 1984; by that stage PIE had merged with PAL. Several former PIE/PAL members were arrested and charged at that point. However, Slade moved to the Philippines in 1985 where he reportedly bought a house in a poor neighbourhood opposite a primary school. Complaints were made about him allegedly preying on children and luring them into his house to sexually abuse them. Despite this, it was not until 2015 that Slade was arrested, expelled from the Philippines and brought back to the UK, where he was jailed in 2016.
These allegations bear a number of the same features that we often see in our work representing survivors of sexual abuse abroad. We have seen many examples of British perpetrators suspected of having committed sexual abuse against children, who then move abroad where they are in a position of power to exploit children.
Once established abroad they set out to groom some of the most vulnerable children, by buying gifts or money or providing them access to amenities they otherwise would not have, and then sexually abuse them. Due to their relative wealth and status in society, perpetrators can often bribe themselves out of allegations – if they are raised.
It is likely that the majority of these cases remain in the dark. Due to the power imbalance between the Western abusers and the survivors’ multiple vulnerabilities including, for example, extreme poverty, concerns are not raised or investigated properly.
The cases we do see are often brought to light through the collaboration of local activists and the National Crime Agency and police forces. In the past British paedophiles, such as Simon Harris who was convicted of sexually abusing street boys in Kenya and Mark Frost who was convicted of raping young boys in Thailand, were brought to justice in the UK to a large extent as a result of the extraordinary work of the NCA and NGOs, such as the International Justice Mission (IJM). In both cases lawyers at Leigh Day acted for the survivors in compensation claims once the criminal cases had concluded.
These cases send a clear message to survivors and show that perpetrators can no longer operate with impunity. With cooperation between law enforcement agencies at home and abroad as well as activists, we hope to see more convictions of British perpetrators who deliberately target children abroad.