Big win for child safety: Visa applicants to India to be screened for criminal record

India has been seen as an easy target by travelling child sex offenders in the past, who have entered India and abused kids due to the country's lenient visa norms.
Big win for child safety: Visa applicants to India to be screened for criminal record
Big win for child safety: Visa applicants to India to be screened for criminal record
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In a significant step in favour of child safety in India, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi on Monday announced that declaration of criminal record for those applying for an Indian visa is now mandatory.

“It has now been decided that an appropriate questionnaire & a declaration will be incorporated in the visa application form which will have to be filled up by visa applicants/ foreign nationals,” Maneka said in a tweet, and thanked Home Minister Rajnath Singh for considering and accepting the request.

Maneka explained that her request was based on “complaints of serial child sexual abuse offenders managing to visit India”. “This step will certainly be a strong deterrent for perpetrators of such heinous crimes,” she added.

Who are traveling child sex offenders?

Travelling child sex offenders (TCSO) are child abusers who travel from place to place, often country to country, with the sole purpose of abusing vulnerable children.

India has had its share of these foreign nationals who have come here and allegedly sexually abused children, often from underprivileged backgrounds. The most recent case is that of Paul Dean, an Australian national who was convicted by a Railway Court in Visakhapatnam in March this year, for a case that was filed in 2001. He masqueraded as a doctor, priest, a charity worker, and abused a number of children in Visakhapatnam and Puri - many of whom had physical handicaps and were from impoverished backgrounds - during his stay of 30 years in India.

Despite this, Paul has not spent a day in jail, and was given bail by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. There has been no news of him since.

There have been many other TCSOs who have exploited India’s lenient visa regulation to come to our country and abuse children. The more notorious TCSOs include Ernest Macintosh, Paul Meekin and Richard Huckle, Raymond Varley, Eric Martin and Joseph Archangel.

While the first three came to India, allegedly sexually abused children and then went on to other countries, Raymond was convicted in a child sexual abuse case in Britain in the 1970s, travelled many countries when he was released in 1980 and was ultimately part of an international child sexual abuse racket in Panaji, Goa. Eric Martin, a French national, wanted in his country for sexual assault of nine minor girls, fled France in 2000 and was arrested from Chennai in November 2010. Similarly, Jozef Achtergael, who served five years in his home country Belgium for child sexual abuse, ended up Kerala, training boys in a football academy for years till 2008.

Why the new visa regulations are important

Vidya Reddy, of Chennai-based Tulir, whose organisation has been batting for stricter visa regulations to prevent TCSOs from entering for a decade, was elated at the news. She told TNM, “I am very pleased. I believe it would make the deportation process easier as well. If a person has lied and not declared that they have a criminal record on the visa application, they can now be penalized immediately.”

Up until this point, India did not require declaration of criminal records. In 2014, visa on arrival was also introduced to people coming from various countries at international airports, previous criminal record notwithstanding.

“I think this will send a strong message to the TCSOs who have been looking at India as a honey pot until now,” Vidya said.

In June last year, WCD Minister Maneka Gandhi had taken to Twitter to write to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj asking for foreign nationals with a record of child abuse to be barred from entering India. This came after American citizen John Kirk Jones was arrested in Hyderabad for possessing and distributing child sexual abuse material online.

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