Getting over Canadian sex tourists

At a non-nondescript, discreet compound in Cambodia, young girls form an orderly queue to be served noodles in the NewSong centre.

Routine lapses when the newest among them, a seven-year-old nicknamed Srey, barges past the line, grabs fistfuls of the slippery food and bolts out the door. She's spotted in the backyard, furtively stuffing her face like an animal.

Her adult caregivers don't bat an eye. It's one of the child's first meals since being rescued from a backstreet brothel where she was forced into sex with adult men, many of them westerners and almost certainly Canadians among them.

"When she wasn't actually being abused by customers, they kept her chained below a table," said Brian McConaghy, the Vancouver-based former Mountie and co-founder of the rehabilitation centre for sexually abused and exploited girls.

The brothel owners would scrape their leftovers onto the floor when they were done eating. Srey's every meal was a competition with their dogs.

"Every scrap of food she ever got, she fought for," McConaghy said.

In early January, McConaghy will fly again to the Southeast Asian country for a post-Christmas visit with the NewSong girls, including now ten-year-old Srey and several teens who were the victims of Canada's first prosecuted child sex tourist, Donald Bakker.

The Vancouver man was arrested nearly a decade ago, largely as a result of the then-RCMP forensics investigator McConaghy, who had unique know-how from running a Cambodian medical charity. Each time he returns to the sanctuary, which he set-up after leaving the police force to devote himself to victims, he sees tell-tale signs indicating Canadians are still committing "grotesque" crimes against the country's most defenceless.

Such predators travel abroad to have sex with children because they believe themselves immune to consequences, and critics argue Canada's record doesn't contradict the notion: Only five men have been punished under Canadian laws against child sex tourism over the past 15 years.

McConaghy and other children's advocates, including politicians, senators and frontline police officers, want more Canadians prosecuted. Yet despite the federal Conservatives' tough-on-crime approach, the laws' infrequent use appears unlikely to rise quickly. Domestic problems remain highest on the public radar, and there's only a finite envelope of money available for policing.

Awareness of the true horrors inflicted is low and almost beyond comprehension, the advocates say, resulting in little social momentum to trigger a complaints-driven system that would compel police to get more aggressive.

It's a massive challenge that's prompted those calling for change to take their own small steps, while allies like on-the-ground officers are left to tackle the stomach-turning scourge with the best they can muster.

Winnipeg Tory MP Joy Smith has been propelling the legislation that helps police go after bad guys abroad ever since she watched her police officer son's hair turn "grey literally overnight" while working in Manitoba's child exploitation unit.

"No, absolutely not," is her reply when asked whether the quantity of child sex tourist prosecutions has been enough. "Nobody ever really believed this happened, that Canadians went to other countries."

She urged more "proactive" measures, noting she herself has had to take one step at a time because it's impossible to divorce action from economic realities.

"We have to do it in such a way that we have it out there every day and we do something every day," she said.

Options she said merit consideration include seizing passports from child predators so they can't travel, designating funding solely for child sex tourism investigations and "targeting the market," by creating stricter mechanisms to specifically take down those who want to buy sex. That would include registering child-sex customers, educating about how they operate and teaching police about what really happens to victims, so blame is actually put on perpetrators.

About 38 countries have laws allowing authorities to hunt their own citizens for crimes committed away from home.

Canada's sex-tourism law, with seven arrests and a handful of convictions to its credit, was enacted in 1997.

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