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Rights Group: Human Trafficking on the Rise in Asia - 2004-05-17

In Asia, trafficking children to use for cheap labor or in the sex trade is on the rise. Governments are trying to stop human trafficking, but rights groups say their programs are falling far short.

Child trafficking for the sex industry, illegal labor or both, is increasing across Asia, according to child rights groups. Organized crime networks, whose operations thrive on corruption, often manage the business.

Poverty is behind the problem. Traffickers promise children work, then press them into prostitution or forced labor.

The United Nations' International Labor Organization, or ILO, two years ago estimated the number of exploited child laborers in Asia's factories or farms at more than 100 million.

The ILO defines child labor as exploitative when it harms education or health, and so does not include children who work as part of their families' economic activities while in school.

Frans Roselaers from the ILO's child protection program says governments along the Mekong River are now cooperating on measures to stop child trafficking.

For example, Thailand last year signed an agreement with neighboring Cambodia to allow the repatriation of Cambodian children found working illegally in Thailand.

Mr. Roselaers says such moves can save children from horrible fates. B"ecause what is being done to children through trafficking? is quite horrifying to see, because quite often these children end up being exploited sexually."

Carmen Madrinan, executive director of the Bangkok rights group ECPAT, says regional cooperation has not happened fast enough to stop what has become a booming business. "We have had an exponential rise in trafficking of children in the region," she says. "This is a cross-border problem, and it's an international problem."

A recent ECPAT report estimates that up to 250,000 women and children are trafficked in Southeast Asia each year. Most come from Burma, China's southern Yunnan Province and Laos, while Thailand acts as both a transit and destination country.

Thailand has as many as 200,000 child laborers, and in recent years, the government has enacted tougher legislation to stop child trafficking. It also has promised to set up regional centers for tougher enforcement of the laws.

Ms. Madrinan of ECPAT says better laws and enforcement have not stopped child trafficking because once regulations are strengthened in one country, traffickers move on to countries or regions where enforcement is weak.

Northern Thailand, which shares borders with Laos and Burma, is a good example. Child advocates in the area say the government has promised funding to strengthen regional child welfare groups, but the problem is getting worse.

Sompop Jantraka, a spokesman for the child protection group Daughters Education Program, says his organization has been waiting for more than a year for money promised by the government. "It has been almost one-and-a-half years already but has not seen anything improve yet," he says. "We are too slow, we are too late and we are too worried."

Mr. Sompop says trafficking in northern Thailand is well organized and largely under the control of the local crime groups, who corrupt police and other officials. "This has been well organized by the mafia or the gangs or the traffickers," he says. "Basically they work very close to the authorities - who do the corruption."

Last week, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Purachai Piumsombun said the government would prosecute traffickers by applying money-laundering laws. He says there are up to 10 gangs operating in the northern border provinces.

Mr. Sompop warns that until organizations, regulations and enforcement are strengthened, the porous borders will provide a safe haven for trafficking gangs to operate a trade worth millions of dollars each year.