The U.N. Children's Fund has expressed outrage about what it describes as the "growing" sexual exploitation of young children in the Czech Republic, near its border with Germany. But the Czech government has already condemned the new study.
After years of investigation, UNICEF has concluded that the Czech-German border region has become a haven where tens of thousands of pedophiles, mainly from Germany and other European countries, sexually abuse youngsters and even babies.
The Director of UNICEF in the Czech Republic, Pavla Gomba, says the child prostitutes are often impoverished Roma, also known as Gypsies, from the Czech Republic. She says other youngsters come from what she calls "socially disadvantaged families" in former communist countries such as Belarus, Moldova, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries.
She says they are often the victims of violence beyond the sexual abuse. "There are some very frustrating interviews with children who reported beating[s] and being left naked in the forest," Ms. Gomba said. "And I think this may cause a very, very, very serious trauma to children. Not talking about being abused sexually itself, some children had cuts on their genitals."
According to the report by UNICEF and the regional aid project KARO, parents and other relatives often solicit clients for the children. But the agency says organized crime groups are also involved.
Ms. Gomba says many teenagers can be seen lined up along the highways leading between Germany and the Czech Republic, while younger children are kept behind walls or in forests.
The team of researchers interviewed about 500 child prostitutes since 1996, and found that some bus stops, gasoline stations, and rest stops in the German-Czech border area had been converted into "bazaars" for child prostitutes.
Investigators say minors are generally paid between $6 and $30 for sexual services, but sometimes they only receive candy.
Ms. Gomba of UNICEF says the sexual exploitation of children has increased since the collapse of Communism as Westerners can travel more easily to former Soviet satellite states.
The Czech government has already criticized the UNICEF study, which was published Tuesday.
In a statement, Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said the report is in his words "unrealistic" and does "not correspond to reality." Prime minister Spidla called child prostitution a serious evil, but he said it must be fought based on a realistic analysis of the situation.
However, UNICEF's Pavla Gomba accuses officials of playing down the seriousness of the situation at a time when the country is preparing to join the European Union next year, further opening its borders with the west.
"The official authorities say that there is no child prostitution," said Pavla Gomba. "And I think and we know that child prostitution is a problem everywhere, in all countries in the world. And I think it would be a miracle if the Czech Republic had no case of child prostitution."
Ms. Gomba says UNICEF wants the Czech Republic to sign a protocol on the commercial sexual exploitation of children that is part of an international convention on children's rights. Although the country was one of the first to sign the convention, it has so far not ratified the protocol.
The government is also under pressure from the opposition, which has criticized what was billed as one of the country's largest police operations. The police sweep against human smugglers, illegal migrants, and general prostitution only resulted in a few dozen arrests.