About 35,000 children are among the 500,000 people who have been rendered homeless by the tsunami disaster in Indonesia's province of Aceh. Many of the children lost one or both of their parents. Concerns are growing that unscrupulous groups or individuals could take advantage of the situation and exploit the children.
There are persistent, but unconfirmed reports, that criminals in Indonesia have been offering to adopt children left orphaned by the tsunami disaster and that children have been smuggled out of the country.
Fauzi Usman is chairman of a private group, Aceh Sepakat Foundation, based in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra.
Mr. Usman says neither he nor his organization has seen any evidence as yet. "We only heard reports," he says. Mr. Usman adds, "so far, no one has complained to the police."
John Budd of the UNICEF office in Jakarta says he also has heard the stories of child trafficking.
"There were unconfirmed reports that children were being trafficked out of Aceh to Malaysia and down to Jakarta," said Mr. Budd.
To protect children in Aceh, the Indonesian government moved quickly to block their departure from the country. Riaz Saehu, Indonesian Embassy press official in Washington, says the government is doing all it can to prevent child trafficking.
"First of all, the primary approach is to register and to take data of all the children in refugee camps and to make an assessment, especially, to find out the problems [facing] the children in connection with the disaster,? he said. ?There must be mental, social and physical problems with the children."
Mr. Saehu says the government has placed children in temporary shelters and continues searching for their parents in an effort to re-unite them. Private organizations, such as Aceh Sepakat, say they are fully supportive of the government policies. Many of them believe children should stay in an environment consistent with the Acehnese culture, religion and traditions.
Mr. Usman of the Aceh Sepakat says his group is helping supervise and protect children. Members are assigned to keep watch and monitor children movement at airports, bus terminals, and harbors
UNICEF is also working closely with the Indonesian government to prevent homeless children from being smuggled out of the country or adopted. John Budd of the UNICEF office in Jakarta says the U.N. agency has set up children centers at several locations.
"The centers are designed to be able to help children with emergency care,? said Mr. Budd. ?The other thing it is designed to do is to provide them with trauma counseling because children have witnessed and have gone through terrible things. And the final thing it is designed to do is if a child is separated or unaccompanied, we have a process by which we can start tracing those children back to their parents or family."
Meanwhile, local authorities have sought to recruit volunteer teachers from outside Aceh province in order to resume classes as soon as possible. Schools could begin before the end of January, but with much-reduced hours and number of students.
Seto Mulyadi, chairman of the National Commission for the Protection of Children, says the goal is to focus on creating an environment that could help the tusnami victims quickly regain a normal, happy state of mind. Mr. Mulyadi says the children won't have a regular academic curriculum. Instead, the emphasis will be on trying to deal with the psychological trauma they suffered.
Mr. Mulyadi described a unique step to help the children.
Mr. Mulyadi said that children across Indonesia are being encouraged to send letters to children in Aceh. Those who wish to send letters, he says, are exempt from purchasing regular stamps and a special post-office box has been made available. The program is designed to make the children in Aceh feel that people deeply care about them.