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Child Protection Groups Urge Stronger Action Against Sex Tourism Industry - 2002-09-13

More children are being forced into prostitution in Southeast Asia. Child-protection groups say tough police work alone will not reverse the trend. The International Organization for Migration says up to 300,000 women and children are trapped in slave-like conditions in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, experts say, there may be 18,000 child prostitutes, while in the Philippines, as many as 75,000 children are sexually exploited. Often, their exploiters are men who travel to the region specifically to have sex with children.

The group, End Child Prostitution, Trafficking and Pornography in Tourism, or ECPAT, wants to halt the growth in child-sex tourism. The group has pushed countries such as Australia and New Zealand to make it illegal for their citizens to sexually abuse children overseas.

It is also working with tourism organizations to form a policy on child prostitution to be presented to regional tourism ministers in Cambodia later this year, and it supports programs aimed at keeping children out of the sex trade.

Muireann O'Briain, an ECPAT activist, said despite such efforts, the outlook remains grim for children. "We know that also the numbers of children being abused is increasing, and the levels of abuse are increasing," she said, "so, while on the one hand, we can say, 'yes, we're great, we're doing a great job,' on the other hand, we're saying, 'it's just such a mountain; it's impossible.' The world seems to be getting worse, and worse and worse for children."

At a recent conference in Bangkok on child prostitution, humanitarian organizations asserted that police work alone cannot solve the problem. What is needed, they say, is greater development aid for poor countries. With little opportunity for other jobs, many children are forced into the sex trade to feed themselves or their families.

Christine Beddoe, a program manager for ECPAT's Australian offshoot, Child Wise, said, "We need to work on prevention strategies, including developing opportunities - not only in cities, but [in] rural areas, to stop them moving to tourist areas - provide real alternatives for them in employment in their own communities, so they are not forced to seek work in tourist destinations."

Bruce Harris, with Casa Alianza, a Latin American aid agency for children, said the campaigns against pedophiles in Southeast Asia are having some modest success. He said, however, that success has the unintended effect of pushing pedophiles to other countries. "They are coming to Central America," he said. "Because of the lack of preparedness of the countries in prosecuting sexual abusers of children, they found a relatively low-risk haven."

To prevent this migration, child advocates say, there must be a global effort to police pedophiles, and to create more job opportunities in poor countries.