I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Apologies are owed to the staff of the Oireachtas for the lateness of the hour at which this business is being taken.
I wish to thank my colleagues in Independents4Change for facilitating me this evening in trying to progress the Bill. It is a Bill about protecting children, in particular from those who, for various reasons, sexually abuse children.
Ireland has a horrific past in terms of protecting and guarding children. That is evident from events in the industrial schools, mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries and some foster homes. However, Ireland has come a long way in terms of ensuring the safety of children and progress is being made in regard to child welfare and protection. We have the Children First Act, child protection procedures for primary and post-primary schools, child safeguarding statements, designated liaison officers in schools and Garda vetting of those working with children. Although there are still gaps and room for improvement, imagine what it must be like for children in countries where they have no protection, child welfare or safeguards. The Bill is about trying to protect children who are easy prey for sexual predators in countries where the authorities cannot or will not protect them.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises a child as being a person under the age of 18. Trafficking is the third biggest illegal industry, after arms and drugs, and accounts for billions of dollars annually. The number of trafficked children is conservatively estimated at 4.5 million and statistics indicate that 2 million children are lured or abducted into sexual exploitation, which is modern day slavery. It is incredible that we are discussing child sexual abuse using seemingly contradictory terms such as industry and tourism. However, the consequences for the affected children are horrific. There are physical, mental, emotional and psychological consequences and children may suffer from suicide, depression, addiction and sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV and AIDS.
The abuse occurs in countries such as India and many in South-East Asia, Latin America, South America, the Caribbean and Africa. The common denominator is poverty and a lack of education. Child sexual abuse is about manipulating and exploiting vulnerabilities. There have been many high-profile cases but I will mention only one, that of a seven year old child who was sold to a former American marine. The former marine was eventually extradited from South-East Asia and is serving a very extensive prison sentence in the United States. There are records of the sale of virgin girls and of organised sex rings.
A report by Ending Child Prostitution and Trafficking International, ECPAT, states that child sex tourism has drastically increased. One of the main reasons is that the increase in global travel has created more opportunities for abuse. The profile of offenders has also changed. The stereotypical offender was a white, wealthy, western middle-aged man, although some offenders were women. Although some offenders still fit that profile, there are also situational offenders, persons who do not seek to sexually exploit children but will do so if given the opportunity. Such situational offenders may be business travellers or migrant transient workers. The promotion of tourism in these poorer countries for economic growth is bringing more and more westerners to places in which there is little or no regulation or policing but more and more children available for sex. I read of an organisation that offers sex tours with stops at bars and restaurants that are fronts for child prostitution. It described the sex tours as being like going to McDonalds: there is a menu to choose from, it is quick and it is cheap.
I wish to refer to the work of Irish priest, Fr. Shay Cullen, who is directly involved in rescuing children from the sex tourism industry in the Philippines and supporting children affected by it. At a recent press conference, he spoke of what has been happening through the dark web and the rise in child pornography. To join a photo-sharing paedophile club on the dark web, applicants must submit pictures of children being abused. Some clubs insist on the applicant showing himself perpetrating the abuse. To get the images, men travel to countries where there is ample opportunity to photograph and video such abuse. The images then give them a pass to access further unlimited images. This requirement to provide pictures is fuelling travel to poorer countries. Cyber sex is on the increase. Fr. Cullen spoke about five and six year olds being abused over the Internet. The abuse is carried out to order and customers around the world pay per view through money transfer companies.
In 2017 it emerged that some 700 to 800 Australian male convicted child sex offenders were travelling annually to countries in South-East Asia such as the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand. Following the revelation, the Australian Government acted by passing the Passports Legislation Amendment (Overseas Travel by Child Sex Offenders) Act in 2017. It was introduced in the Australian Parliament on 14 June 2017, passed by both Houses on 20 June and received assent on 26 June 2017. The Act allows a competent authority of the Australian Government to request its Minister for Foreign Affairs to refuse to issue, cancel or order the surrender of a person's Australian passport if the person's name is on a child protection offender register. The purpose is to prevent reportable offenders from travelling overseas to sexually exploit or abuse vulnerable children in places where those activities are not monitored.
I wish to thank Maeve Ní Liatháin of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, David Dodd of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser and Ciaran O'Brien in my office for their work on the Bill. It is a tricky situation for which to legislate because of the constitutional right to travel and a good example of unintended consequences because, although it is wonderful to have the right to travel, one can be sure that the constitutional amendment is not intended to grant a right to travel in order to abuse children in other countries when one has been convicted of child sexual abuse in one's own country. To state the situation using commercial jargon such as demand, market and supply, we have no ability to target the supply side in other countries.
We agree we could do more in terms of demand but what we can do also is protect children by preventing access to the markets by abusers.
Child sex tourism is linked with trafficking and organised crime in many countries. It is in countries that carry low detection and low conviction rates, both here and internationally, so these child abusers know they are carrying a low risk when they engage with the child sexual trade abroad. Hence, there is a greater need for the Irish authorities to do more to prevent access to vulnerable children.
The purpose of the Bill is to regulate and restrict, where appropriate, sex offenders from travelling abroad in the interests of the common good and to protect persons from serious harm outside the State. It seeks to do that by increasing the powers of judges. It is not an outright ban on travelling. Currently, there are a number of ways convicted sex offenders can be prevented from travelling but an important feature of this Bill is the way in which it redefines protection from serious harm to mean physical or psychological harm caused by the person committing a sexual offence. The current definition of "serious harm" is very restrictive, therefore, this Bill is making it stronger.
Regarding the impact on the right to travel, at least at an international law level, restrictions to human rights are permitted as long as they adhere to the standards of legality, necessity and proportionality. If the Bill is passed, the legality element will be fulfilled. The emphasis on judges' discretion will go to the necessity aspect, and proportionality is covered as the restriction will be on a case-by-case basis. If, on the next Stage, certain countries can be highlighted such as those which lack adequate child protection rather than an outright ban on travel, that will also cover proportionality.
ECPAT International has done a lot of work on balancing the right to privacy of a convicted child sex offender with the need to protect children. One of the recommendations in a particular report states that every restrictive measure for convicted travelling sex offenders should be adopted on a case-by-case basis with the assessment of a multidisciplinary team - judicial, psychological and the police. That would also be in keeping with the legislation in approximately 40 countries whose citizens can be prosecuted for child sexual abuse committed while those citizens are abroad. The difficulty is that in those countries where the child sexual abuse is taking place, it is happening with impunity because the authorities, including the police, are involved.
Even though 173 countries signed the optional protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in May 2016, there is continued widespread child sex tourism, with well-known child sex tourism destinations. At this point, convicted offenders can travel from Europe to those countries to abuse children.
There is a need to put child protection at the core of tourism strategies. Work and training is going on, including in Ireland, for those working in hotels on what to recognise in regard to child sexual abuse and how to identify potential sex tourists. The organisation doing that in Ireland is Mercy Efforts for Child Protection Against Trafficking in the Hospitality Sector, MECPATHS. Some organisations are working on a corporate policy for employers to state they will not knowingly engage in the sexual exploitation of a child.
There are varying theories on working with paedophiles and child sex offenders but I want to mention the programmes in Ireland for child sex offenders. I spoke to somebody who works in those programmes. He spoke of that moment of insight into the behaviour and an awareness of what they were doing in terms of the damage and then the genuine motivation to seek amends and work on the behaviour. That is very valuable work.
In the same way that somebody who is in recovery from alcoholism would be advised not to go near a bar or a pub and somebody recovering from a gambling addiction will be advised not to go near a bookies or somewhere they can bet, equally, for a child sex offender, it would be very helpful for their recovery that they are restricted in being able to travel to countries where children are readily available for sexual abuse.
I want to mention women who are trafficked into this country for the purpose of prostitution. A common denominator among them is that the prostitution began when they were children. They owe their lives to organisations like Ruhama.
I read the Minister's amendment and I will address that when I am concluding the debate, but this Bill is about vulnerable children and giving them the opportunities to develop their potential and not have it cut short by men, many from our country and from other countries in Europe.