ABU DHABI // Police officers will start posing as teenagers in new online "e-patrols" aimed at luring paedophiles. They will also monitor suspicious behaviour and financial transactions, and check the accessing of websites in an intensification of the hunt for online child predators. New child protection laws will be introduced "as soon as it's practical", according to a spokesman for the UAE's online anti-paedophile task force.
It follows the UAE's entry last week into the Virtual Global Taskforce (VGT), a collaboration between law enforcement agencies around the world intended to combat international networks of predators. The task force includes agencies in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, as well as Interpol. The UAE is the first country from Asia and Africa to join the consortium. The UAE will extend its monitoring of suspected predators, actively searching for them.
Parents will also get more advice on overseeing their children's internet activity. These efforts will be managed by a permanent executive committee with representatives from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the Emirates Identity Authority. "Our participation in VGT will help us to adopt international best practices, and will be further bolstered by the introduction of appropriate legislation and regulations," said Major Gen Nasser al Nuaimi, who will head the committee.
"The protection of our children and families is vital to the development of our society," he said. Monitoring efforts will include attempts to detect online child exploitation, including recruitment for child labour, bullying and sexual exploitation. The "e-patrols" would be part of the effort to draw out predators, said Maj Faisal al Shammari, the UAE's VGT co-ordinator. They will also monitor online behaviour.
Data on suspicious behaviour, financial transactions and site access can be uploaded to the global VGT database, to be checked against patterns of activity elsewhere. Media and online campaigns will also point out the dangers of the internet to children, and warn parents to monitor their online activities. "We'll also be focusing on parents and guardians as well so they're aware of what the internet risks are," he said. The message will be that parents should "know what their children are doing".
The committee will work on legislation to specifically criminalise possession of child pornography. "We have to study what laws are already in place that could be amended, and what new legislation there is. Work is going on this now," said Maj al Shammari, adding that laws would be introduced "as soon as it's practical". He added that, up to now, no cases of online exploitation had been reported to the police. However, according to child experts, that could be partly because children were worried about the consequences.
"Children have a blaming mentality, that we did something wrong, we brought this upon ourselves, maybe God is punishing us," said Dr Leena Amiri, a child psychiatrist and lecturer at Al Ain University. "Their thinking is different, so they will not seek help from others. "Sure, we don't have statistics showing the extent of the problem, but these people possibly do not come to our attention to begin with. They might be suffering in silence." Setting up a body to talk about exploitation, with the explicit aim of helping victims, would encourage children to come forward, she added.
Dr Lori Schwab, a consultant and psychotherapist at Al Ain Hospital who is working on creating a child protection group in Al Ain Hospital, said teenagers, with a strong need to feel liked and popular, were particularly vulnerable to online exploitation. "This all makes it very easy for offenders to gradually build up their trust and friendship," she said. With both parents often working, children sometimes find comfort and recognition in online "families", she added.
Dr Amiri said confusion over what was appropriate could result from the UAE's mix of cultures, adding that parents needed to monitor their children for signs of isolation, anxiety and depression. These symptoms, she said, could signify that they were being exploited online. Hussain al Sarhan, consultant adviser at the Family Development Foundation, said it could be difficult to spot danger signals. "Many families lack the awareness to detect such issues or how to deal with them," he said.
"The children themselves do not reveal what is happening because they are afraid they will be prohibited from using the internet if their parents find out. "The problem is that children do not understand the intentions of predators. They are tempted by whatever the predator is offering, and once they start there is no going back." New laws would form a "base stone" to combat the phenomenon, he said.