The United Nations is urging governments in South Asia to intensify efforts to tackle the growing problem of child sexual exploitation. UNICEF says the problem has worsened since South Asian governments joined a global drive to stop trafficking in children in 2001.

The number of women and children being trafficked and sold into the sex trade or domestic service in countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and India is on the rise.

UNICEF's regional director for South Asia, Sadiq Rasheed, calls it "one of the blights of South Asia."

"The situation as we see it ? is one of increased trafficking, increased abuse and increased commercial sexual exploitation. I would characterize the situation as one of nothing less than modern-day slavery," Mr. Rasheed says.

UNICEF is holding a three-day meeting this week in Sri Lanka to review the progress of a global campaign to stop child trafficking, which began three years ago. The United Nations agency says that instead of improving, the situation is becoming more serious.

It says conflicts in places such as Afghanistan and Nepal have aggravated the problem, as tens of thousands of displaced young people are lured or pushed into the sex trade when they go in search of safety and work.

Most of the trafficking happens within the region. It is estimated that at least half a million Bangladeshi women and children have been trafficked to India and Pakistan in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalese children and women are working in Indian cities.

Mr. Rasheed says criminals who entice young boys and girls into the sex market have widened their network to meet the demand of what he calls a "rapacious market." He says the region's widespread poverty worsens the situation.

"Most of these girls and boys come from communities, which are very poor, communities in which girls and boys see very little opportunity for progress and for a better life they could look for," Mr. Rasheed says. "They come from communities, also, which have shown instances of abuse within the family."

UNICEF is urging governments to work harder to enforce laws, and step-up border collaboration. Mr. Rasheed says countries must also address the problems that promote trafficking - poverty, lack of education and skills among young people and the widespread discrimination faced by girls in the region.

"This is an issue, which cannot be swept under the carpet. Governments have to come clean here, in the sense, they have to admit that there is a problem here and deal with it," Mr. Rasheed says.

More than one-third of the estimated 1.2 million women and children trafficked each year come from Asia.