Australia's coronavirus outbreak raises alarm over online child sex abuse

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Australian police on Tuesday warned “insidious” online predators were targeting new child victims after a surge in coronavirus infections put the country’s second-largest city under partial lockdown.

Australian health authorities said it could take weeks to tame the COVID-19 outbreak after hundreds of new cases reported in the state of Victoria, whose capital Melbourne is in partial lockdown.

The measures prompted the Australian federal police to urge parents to ensure their children do not fall victim to “insidious online predators”, after abuse cases spiked during a national lockdown in March.

Traffic to websites hosting online child sexual abuse content skyrocketed during the earlier lockdown and such material posted to the dark web doubled, police said.

“We suspect that offenders will use this second wave of COVID-19 as an opportunity to find more potential child victims, as young people spend an increasing amount of time online with limited adult supervision,” police commander Jamie Strauss said.

“Our message to online offenders has not changed - if you procure, access and transmit child abuse material, you will be found, arrested and prosecuted,” he added in a statement.

From Europe to Asia, cases of online child sexual abuse have soared during coronavirus lockdowns as children spend more time online, making them more vulnerable to abusers.

In Australia, child exploitation has been on the rise in recent years. Nearly 22,000 cases were reported between July 2019 and June 2020, up by almost 50% from a year ago, official figures show.

“Sex offenders are always online, that’s their playground,” said Karen Flanagan, the Australia head of child protection at the charity Save the Children.

“But COVID-19 might have given them access to new groups of children who previously didn’t spend as much time online,” she said last week, urging more parental supervision.

State authorities in Victoria on Tuesday reported 374 new COVID-19 cases, up from 275 on Monday, dampening hopes of a slowdown in infections two weeks after nearly 5 million were told to stay home except for essential reasons.

Australia has recorded about 12,000 coronavirus cases and more than 125 deaths.

Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit