In 2013, Pastor George Fernandes of New Hope for Children orphanage in Bengaluru received an e-mail from a British citizen Richard Huckle. Huckle wrote that he was interested in spending time at the orphanage and click photographs.
The unsuspecting pastor allowed George to stay at the orphanage for two days, not knowing that he was being investigated for abusing and and raping up to 200 children in Malaysia.
Pastor George said Richard was never left alone with any of the children at New Hope during his stay there and no case has been filed.
Ernest Macintosh, a Nova Scotia businessman was convicted in two cases of sexual assault and one indecent assault of young boys in the early 1980s. And yet, in 1994, he came to India for work.
A year later, a man told Canada authorities that he was abused by Macintosh in 1970s. Many others came forward as well, resulting in over 40 charges against Macintosh.
The Canadian authorities contacted Macintosh in 1996 but he refused to return to Canada. His extradition process took till 2007. When the New Delhi police arrested him from Gurgaon in 2007, they also found some photographs in his flat. Macintosh's lawyer claimed that the photos were of the students he was "helping financially".
After being extradited to Canada, his first trial began in 2010. However, the Canadian court acquitted him after which he travelled to Nepal and was arrested in 2015 for allegedly forcing a young boy to have sex with him.
Paul Meekin served as the principal of a school in Bengaluru when, in 2011, he was charged for sending lewd messages to a 14-year-old boy. It was also found that Meekin had, in the past, taken an eight-year-old boy to Goa and behaved inappropriately with him. He was also being investigated in Thailand for similar charges.
Despite charges as well as multiple arrest warrants, Meekin disappeared after serving a 13 month sentence, to resurface in 2014 as a social science teacher at a Kuwaiti school under a different alias. His trial for charges under the Juvenile Justice Act and the IT Act were still pending in India.
How and why do men like Huckle, Macintosh and Meekin come to India? Criminals like them are called ‘Traveling Child Sex Offenders (TCSO)’ and find it easy to enter India and disappear in the crowds here.
While many countries have strict visa regulations that prevent anyone with a history of sexual offense from entering their territories, India has taken its ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’ tradition too literally.
And wanting to break that tradition is Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi. She wrote to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Twitter recently, asking for Indian visa rules to be revised so that people with criminal record of child abuse do not enter the country.
Maneka Gandhi’s suggestion came soon after American citizen John Kirk Jones was arrested in Hyderabad for distributing child sexual abuse material (CSAM) or child pornography online. Not only did he possess 29,228 CSAM files, Jones also confessed that he had been watching child pornography since childhood.
The Indian visa rules do not make declaration of criminal record mandatory. Further, in 2014, India started giving visa on arrival to nationals of various countries at its international airports, with no regard for their previous criminal record.
There are many cases of travelling offenders who relocate to another place simply to have access to victims they can abuse.
Vidya Reddy of Tulir, an organization which works in the field of preventing child sexual abuse, has been fighting for over a decade to regulate visa guidelines so that convicted CSA offenders are not allowed to travel to India. She says that as per scientific understanding, people who have a sexual interest in children never completely lose it, and at most can learn to manage it in a way that does not pose a threat to children around them.
“So when there have been convictions, I don’t understand why we need to put more children at risk by allowing them entry here,” she insists.
She points out that there are various types of cases she has come across: where the alleged offenders have charges against them in different cities but have not been convicted; those who have Interpol red corner notices against them but still manage to escape to another place before sentencing; those who have been convicted; and those who have their charges investigated but their cases have never come up for trial.
An example of the second category is UK national Raymond Varley, who was charged with sexual offences against children in India from 1989-1991.
Raymond was convicted in a CSA case by Britain in the 1970s. He was released some time in the 1980s and continued to travel and work as an English tutor in Albania, Serbia and Thailand. He then came to India where he was part of an international paedophile racket in Panaji, Goa. But before the CBI could arrest him, he disappeared to resurface in Britain in 2000 under another alias.
An Interpol red corner notice was issued against him on CBI’s request. However, he kept moving between Thailand, Britain, Mexico and Slovenia, until his arrest in Bangkok in 2012, after which he was sent to Britain. The Indian government’s request to extradite him was turned down by a Westminster court as Varley claimed he was suffering from dementia.
Vidya says that one cause of the problem lies with NGOs and other organisations that work with children and indulge in ‘volunteer-tourism’.
“Notice that most of these traveling offenders were volunteers, teachers and the like. Many NGOs invite foreigners to volunteer with them for a certain fee and in return, they can spend time with children, and sometimes are even allowed to live with them. It’s really scary how this puts the children at risk,” she says.
Vidya says that a good step in this direction is taken by the UK, which allows employers of UK nationals, and people who have resided in the UK to apply for International Child Protection Certificate (ICPC), which will tell them if the employee has any convictions or reasons why he/she should not work with children.
Among other countries, Australia also takes cognizance of travelling child sex offenders and mandates that a registered offender inform the authorities if he/she wishes to undertake travel. A foreign law enforcement agency will also be notified of their travel. Philippines also does not allow foreign nationals who are registered sex offenders to enter the country.
While Interpol recognises travelling offenders as those who travel to developing countries solely to abuse children, Vidya also recommends that apart from issues like terrorism, drug abuse that Interpol places more emphasis on, the organisation treat travelling offenders as priority as well.
Kushi, who works with Enfold, an NGO working for the prevention of child sexual abuse says that there is no question that a visa regulation along the lines Maneka Gandhi’s recommendation is required. Her colleague Pooja however, points out a caveat: “Conviction rates tend to be low in such cases. So, if the visa mandates that only convicted offenders are not allowed to enter India, what about the alleged ones?”
Vidya maintains that while some people would “fall through the cracks”, it is essential that only convicted CSA offenders be including in this regulation.