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Guarding Against Sexual Exploitation of Tsunami Children

There is ongoing concern for the children that survived the South Asian Tsunami. Sexual exploitation of children is prevalent in the region. And tens of thousands of children have been separated from their families -- or orphaned. They are easy targets for child traffickers and there is a real fear that some of the tsunami children will be forced into child labor or sexual slavery.

UNICEF estimates that 50,000 children may have been orphaned across the tsunami zone. The UN agency is concerned that these children may be targeted by child traffickers.

So far there is no evidence of widespread trafficking, yet UNICEF has confirmed a few cases. But, the regional director of UNICEF-South Asia, Martin Dawes, says the risk is real. "We are extremely concerned because children that are vulnerable may be looking for friendship or association with adults because they have lost parents," he said.

UNICEF says in Indonesia alone alone 100,000 women and children are trafficked each year. In response to fears of trafficking, Indonesia has imposed a temporary ban on children under 16 leaving the hard-hit Aceh province. The Sri Lankan government has banned the adoption of tsunami victims all together.

Melanne Verveer, chairwoman of Vital Voices Global Partnership, says the criminal exploitation of children is well established in India and Thailand as well. "There are very lucrative markets in the region for children and for women and there is not always the best law enforcement," she said.

Ms. Verveer says people working in the tsunami refugee camps need to be aware that criminals may come to the camps posing as adoption workers or family members. She adds, "On top of all the problems that exist, the lack of food, the lack of shelter, the exposure to the disease, on top of that they've go to be aware that there are traffickers lurking, and not just lurking, they are already moving children, kidnapping, exploiting in ways that are just disastrous."

She says the best way to protect orphaned or displaced children is to register them. But, humanitarian groups and volunteers have a very difficult task ahead of them if they are to protect tens of thousands of children from exploitation as well as deal with a general humanitarian crisis.