Cook joins Manila in child abuse mission

Britain helps Philippines fight under-age sexual exploitation
Governments usually go to grand halls to sign bilateral agreements with overseas countries. This will not be the case when Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, visits the Philippines at the end of the week. Instead, he will find himself in a rundown building where abused and street children seek refuge.

Located in what used to be the heart of Manila's red- light district, the Bahay Tuluyan centre provides a modest refuge for children, many of whom have been sexually abused.

Britain has provided assistance to the centre and is planning to step up co-operation with the Philippines to prevent child abuse, especially sexual exploitation involving foreigners.

Although Britain is not considered to be the worst offender, its nationals have figured prominently in the few prosecutions brought by the Philippine authorities against child sex abusers. Of the four foreigners convicted of child sex crimes, two are British: Steven Mitchell was found guilty of sexual activity with small boys and Michael Clarke was convicted of organising sex tours.

Considerable publicity has also surrounded the arrest of Douglas Slade, who is charged with sexual offences against under-age children. He is one of 45 foreigners arrested since the Philippines decided to get tough on paedophiles.

Britain was among the first foreign countries to offer assistance. Last year, officers from Scotland Yard conducted a two-week course on the investigation of child-abuse cases. Following the course, the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation established the first national Anti-Child Abuse Division.

Now further assistance is being planned, with a more extensive tie-up between the Philippine police and the Durham constabulary. Officers from Durham will be dispatched to conduct a four-week course for trainers, which will focus on detection techniques and the handling of victims.

The two countries will also step up co-operation in sharing intelligence on the movements and activities of known paedophiles and other serious criminals. With its European partners, Britain is helping to equip the new abuse division.

Although Mr Cook will generate publicity for the fight against abuse, the British effort is little more than a drop in the ocean in a country where the United Nations fund Unicef estimates that 60,000 children work as prostitutes. Incest and abuse in the home are also rampant.

"We are questioning the effectiveness of the crackdown against child sex offenders," said Elizabeth Pucate, the spokeswoman for the Manila- based End Child Prostitution Pornography and Trafficking (ECPPAT) campaign. She says there has been some progress but there is also frustration over the lack of a more comprehensive effort to eradicateabuse by tackling the problem at a community level and providing rehabilitation for children involved in prostitution.

ECPPAT says it has evidence that organisations in countries, including Britain, are still producing advertising material about child prostitution in Asia, describing the Philippines as a haven for child sex.

Adrian Thorpe, Britain's ambassador in Manila, says the British government is determined to play its role in helping to combat child abuse. He stresses that the Government "feels strongly that those who abuse children should be brought to justice".

This will be an uphill battle in the Philippines where there is a marked reluctance to tackle the domestic problems of child abuse. Although rape cases are prosecuted, other offences are generally unreported and not the subject of police investigation. As far as foreign paedophiles are concerned, the government used to be content merely to deport them, even though some kept coming back.