Prague, 12 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Police in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent said this week that they have broken a human trafficking ring in which young girls would have been sold into prostitution.
They say they prevented the sale of eight girls -- the oldest was 17 -- to the Persian Gulf after receiving a tip-off last month.
Police spokesman Erkin Inkarov tells RFE/RL that recruiters had promised the girls well-paid jobs abroad.
"[They] kept eight girls for sexual exploitation, [saying to them]: 'Well, if you want to get jobs abroad, we have an opportunity to employ you there.' And they started arranging passports [and travel documents] for them," Inkarov said.
The Central Asian republics are a source, transit point, and destination country for people trafficked from other countries in the region. Most of the victims are trafficked to Russia, the Persian Gulf, Turkey, East Asia, and Europe.
"We've spoken to six pimps, [and] one of them said that Arabs recently asked to send young boys. According to [the pimp], Arabs prefer young boys between 12 and 14 with blue eyes. Their skin can be either light or dark. The price of the boys depends on that."
The issue is of particular concern in Tajikistan, which is still struggling to recover from its five-year civil war, which left many people desperate to find better economic prospects abroad.
Gulchehra Mirzoeva is head of Modar (Mother), a Tajik nongovernmental organization focusing on women's rights. She notes that the sex slavery trade also affects young boys.
"We've spoken to six pimps, [and] one of them said that Arabs recently asked to send young boys. According to [the pimp], Arabs prefer young boys between 12 and 14 with blue eyes. Their skin can be either light or dark. The price of the boys depends on that," Mirzoeva said.
Meeting this week in the capital, Bangkok, officials from the United Nations and 20 East Asia-Pacific countries admitted that child trafficking is getting worse despite changes in laws and government policies.
Gopalan Balagopal, a senior adviser to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, spoke to Reuters about the problem.
"We see that children are continuing to be sexually exploited. And children are continuing to be trafficked. There's a whole lot of material on the Internet which is directly connected to the sexual exploitation of children," Balagopal said.
Thailand has long had a reputation for its sex trade.
Young girls from Southeast Asia are lured to Thailand with promises of lucrative jobs, only to end up in massage parlors and karaoke bars where prostitution is rampant.
Recently, six teenage girls were found cowered inside dark, grimy rooms after they were rescued in a brothel in northern Thailand. The girls, most of whom had been smuggled across the border from impoverished Myanmar, were covered in bruises and cigarette burns inflicted by drunken customers. One girl even had duct tape across her mouth to stop her from screaming.
Ben Svasti, from the anti-trafficking group Trafcord, says the case is one of the most horrific memories he has of his time on the frontlines in the fight against child trafficking.
"A young child is not yet ready to have sex physically or mentally. And you're being faced by a customer who wants to take your virginity. He's probably paid a lot of money for it. And he's often drunk. And he's brutal. And that is just the most horrific ordeal for any child [and] any woman to have to go through," Svasti said.
Thailand's child-trafficking business is believed to amount to some $2.5 billion a year.
New technologies, including the Internet, digital cameras, and mobile phones, have increased the spread of child pornography, the demand for it, and the risks for children of sexual exploitation.
National laws have not kept pace with these trends. Most countries in the region do not have laws that refer specifically to child pornography, and few criminalize its mere possession.
(Sojida Djakhfarova from RFE/RL's Tajik Service; Merhat Sharipzhanov, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service; and Reuters contributed to this report.)