549 kids rescued from sexual abuse in major operation by UAE-based International Security Alliance
The operation identified hundreds of children who were living in abusive environments.
A major child protection operation involving the cooperation of 11 governments has resulted in the rescue of 549 children from harm and exploitation, a top Abu Dhabi-based International Security Alliance (ISA) official has revealed.
ISA coordinated the operation, which led to 771 arrests related to child exploitation and the blocking of 580 websites and apps used to promote and share materials related to sexual abuse of kids, said Lieutenant Abdulla Al Hashmi of the ISA.
The operation identified hundreds of children who were living in abusive environments. “They were removed from those homes by police and child protection services, placed in safe homes and offered follow-up physical and mental healthcare to alleviate the trauma they had been through,” Captain Hamad Khatir, an official with the ISA told Khaleej Times.
“While we are saddened that the children were put in such a dismal situation, we feel immensely proud that our operation has rescued them and allowed them to live lives free from harm,” he explained.
This particular initiative began in January and was due to end in May. However, it was extended to the end of September due to a spike in online child exploitation during the Covid-19 pandemic. To combat this, countries increased their levels of cooperation and information sharing. Law enforcement agencies also cooperated with private companies to acquire and share data on sexual offenders.
‘Online sexual harassment up amid Covid’
Lieutenant Al Hashmi said: “We recognised that online sexual exploitation has drastically increased during the pandemic; communities are in danger since many children across the world are at risk of online sexual exploitation from criminal predators that have adapted to the crisis and exploited the vulnerability of young people.”
As a result of Covid-19, children are spending much more time online. Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders worldwide mean children have been accessing education, communicating with their friends, and spending a lot of their leisure time online, added Captain Khatir.
“Much of this time has been unsupervised as parents struggle to balance working from home with childcare,” he pointed out. “The most important thing for children is not to respond to threats and to report the threat to a trusted adult or the authorities. Both children and parents must keep in mind that once they send anything online, it is there forever,” he pointed out.
A representative from the Italian Interior Ministry (Ministero dell'Interno) said: “A significant increase in the number of offences committed via the internet has been detected, especially relating to minors, with a subsequent surge in police operational activities throughout the Italian territory.”
The official underlined: “The possibility for the national security system to share views have certainly made it possible to lay the foundations of renewed international collaboration and increase at a technical and operational level, the possibility of reaching environments that have not been fully explored yet.”
Pouncing on predators
Commenting on the modus-operandi of the operation, Captain Khatir said: “Due to the nature of the internet, online child sexual abuse and exploitation is a borderless crime and that is why it is crucial for law enforcement agencies from across the world to collaborate to tackle it. This allows us to combine resources and share information, allowing us to act much more quickly to apprehend abusers and identify and protect victims.”
“Reports from the members of the public, including victims themselves, as well as the covert nature of our work led us to child sexual predators. Operationally, much of what we do remains classified, so as not to compromise future operations,” said Captain Khatir.
The rescued children were all under the age of 18. “In most jurisdictions, a child is defined as anyone under the age of 18 and for this operation, no specific age group was targeted. At-risk children of all ages were identified and supported,” he added.
Captain Khatir explained: “The arrests included a wide array of crimes across the different jurisdictions involved. This includes sexual abuse of minors, production and distribution of child sexual abuse material, and its possession.”
The ISA official said social media platforms, other applications and websites can do a lot to hinder predators.
“Built-in protection measures can be implemented - like facial recognition software that asks users to take a selfie to prove that their identity matches the photos they upload. Moderation policies and report functions should be ramped up, with regular staff training on issues that should be referred to child protection services,” suggested Captain Khatir.
“Organisations can also periodically send messages to all registered users below the age of 18 with self-protection, tips to use on their platforms. Safeguarding measures should be reviewed and updated consistently,” he said.
Keep a watch, parents!
According to Captain Khatir, predators seek to infiltrate any digital network that is popular with children, often posing as a peer of their own age and faking similar interests. “They will take considerable efforts to make a child feel special in a process known as grooming, before engaging in harmful, exploitative, and abusive behaviour. This can include social media sites and video games,” he said.
It’s really important that parents have open conversations with their children about the risks of being online.
Parents should have clear rules for how and when the internet is used and should monitor the websites, games and applications their children use.
Ideally, screen time should mainly occur when an adult is nearby and can keep an eye out for any unusual behaviour.
Parents should watch out for any sudden changes in behaviour around internet use, signs of distress, gifts or any attempts to keep their internet use a secret as these may be signs that exploitation is occurring.
What is ISA
Launched in February 2017, the ISA is a collaborative transnational network comprising the governments of the UAE, France, Bahrain, Morocco, Italy, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia and Spain. Each member state created a working group within their Ministry of Interior to facilitate collaboration and were joined for this operation by experts from the UK and Australian governments. The Alliance Secretariat is located in Abu Dhabi and works to support the Alliance technical teams in implementing joint projects.
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