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Sun, Sea and Sex Scandal: Morocco's Shady Status as a Sex Tourism Hotspot

Could the public outrage around the Daniel Galvan paedophilia scandal jolt the government into taking sex tourism and sexual abuse more seriously?
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The Agadir marina by night. Photograph by Achraf AMINE.

On July 31, 2013, news that 64-year-old Spanish citizen, Daniel Galvan, had received a royal pardon spread like wildfire on social media sites across the North African kingdom. Moroccans have rarely, if ever, questioned the royal pardon on the annual celebration of the King’s Fête de Throne, but Galvan was no ordinary criminal; in 2011, a Moroccan court had sentenced Galvan to 30 years in prison for raping 11 Moroccan children between the ages of 4 and 15.

Following news that Galvan was to be allowed to go free, outraged Moroccans took to the streets to contest his release and demand justice. This pressure from the street prompted the official revoking of the pardon only 48 hours after its release. During those hours of rage and anger, however, Moroccans openly asked and hotly debated questions such as: Why would the King forgive a paedophile? Who is responsible for the sale of ‘our’ poor children to predators? How do we toughen laws against sex tourism? And when did Morocco become a destination for sex tourism?

Not the first

Danielgate, as the scandal has become known, has been the scandal of all scandals. It involved the questioning of two royal decisions – the pardon and its revoke – and an unexpectedly bold response from the Moroccan public.

However, as heinous as Galvan’s crimes are, they are not unique cases in modern Morocco. In fact, Danielgate came hot on the heels of other recent sex scandals involving foreigners exploiting vulnerable Moroccans, scandals that tore at the fabric of a traditionally conservative society which tends to avoid publicly confronting sexual matters.

One of these scandals involved Belgian journalist Philippe Servaty. During his three years residence in the coastal city of Agadir – between 2001 and 2004 – Philippe seduced and lured young women into his house where, unbeknownst to them, he filmed and photographed them in sexually graphic scenes. The pornographic materials, circulated in Agadir and other Moroccan cities in CD form, eventually went viral online. Twelve of the ‘seduced’ women were sentenced to one year imprisonment but Servaty received no punishment in Morocco. It was only in February 2012 that he was found guilty by a Belgian court, which handed down a two-year suspended sentence.

Morocco, like many other developing countries, relies heavily on tourism, with the industry estimated to be worth $10 billion a year. But amidst the sun- and sea-seekers, there is also a significant sex tourism industry. Cities such as Marrakech, Agadir, and Casablanca, to mention just a few, have become popular tourist destination for prostitution and paedophilia.

Najat Answar, president of the NGO Touche pas á Mon Enfant, claims that 26,000 Moroccan children are sexually abused each year. And according The National Monitoring Centre for Child Rights (NMCC) in Rabat, nearly 43% of children who made distress calls from 1999 to 2003 reported sexual abuse by foreigners.

“[Sexual tourism] also exists in other Arab countries”, said tourism industry goodwill ambassador Khalid Semmouni in 2007 after writing a report on the matter, “but it is much more severe in Morocco”.

Inconsistency and inaction

The reaction from the Moroccan authorities to the problem has been selective, sketchy and schizophrenic at best.

In terms of who the main culprits are, Moroccan journalists and investigative reporters have tended to point the finger at the wealthy Arab and Gulf tourists. But with no serious and comprehensive study commissioned, the scope and nature of the crimes committed remain obscured.

Additionally, when those responsible for sexual crimes are found, there is a huge degree of inconsistency, uncertainty and injustice regarding the criminal proceedings. In a mass prostitution trial in Agadir in 2005, for example, 60 women were sentenced to four months imprisonment while the 28 Saudi and 9 Kuwaiti holidaymakers also implicated were deported with no criminal charges.

Human rights activists who followed the case denounced the inconsistencies in the trial and in the official responses to sex tourism in general. As Abd al-Rahman Yazidi, head of local rights group Anaruz, put it, “If the goal of this swoop is to fight sex tourism, then authorities ought to look at all hotels in Agadir, not just one, apply the law on all, not only on Moroccans, and fight factors that help prostitution flourish.”

A changing scene?

Although there are no well-established statistics about sex tourism in Morocco, scandals such as Danielgate and Servaty’s crimes have ignited speculation about how deeply Morocco is implicated in this shady global industry.

While globalisation and advances in transportation and communication technologies have propelled the tourist industry to the benefit of the Moroccan economy, ongoing problems such as poverty, lack of sexual education and corruption continue to encourage the growth and expansion of sex tourism. Furthermore, Morocco’s lenient judiciary systems, at least when it comes to foreign perpetrators, means the disincentives against sex tourism are very weak. Indeed, Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy believes that sex tourism is partly a product of the asymmetrical power relations between the North and South; a legal culture which punishes Moroccan victims while letting foreign tourists off the hook can surely only further entrench this problem.

However, while the government has so far been slow and lacklustre in its approach to sex tourism and sexual abuse, the angry response of so many Moroccans to the Danielgate scandal could be a positive sign that Moroccans will no longer tolerate silence and inaction. If the outrage of the Moroccan public and the passionate debates that began are kept up, the government could come to recognise that society is no longer willing to accept injustice even if this comes with a royal stamp of approval.

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