A UN conference that begins today will assess the progress made in improving the lives of the world's children in areas such as education and health care. But special attention will be paid to ending the abuse of millions of children. Delegates will focus on child trafficking, on the rise worldwide and surging in the former communist states in transition.
United Nations, 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leading government officials from the UN's 189 member states gather in New York today for a three-day conference focused on improving living conditions for the world's 2.1 billion children.
Delegates will review the goals set at the 1990 World Summit for Children, including successful campaigns to reduce infant mortality and diseases like polio. Child advocates are also expecting governments to make new commitments to protect children from new phenomena such as forced military service and sexual exploitation.
Reports released in advance of the conference by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate that 246 million children aged five to 17 are involved in child labor, most from Asia and Africa.
A small percentage of that number are trapped in the worst forms of child labor, in which they are trafficked abroad to work in the sex industry. But international aid officials say they are concerned that the number will grow and that an upsurge in the problem is under way in the former communist states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
The ILO report estimates that worldwide, 1.2 million children have been trafficked, of which about 200,000 have come from transition countries. Other international organizations decline to quantify the number of children trafficked but say there is clear evidence it has risen alongside the rising incidence of trafficking in women.
This regional trend has emerged in the 1990s due to the social and economic upheaval caused by the collapse of communism. Robert Cohen is regional communications officer for the United Nations Children's Fund -- or UNICEF -- in the former communist region in transition. He tells RFE/RL that the region's transition has been more prolonged, and its consequences more wrenching, than anyone expected.
"There has been an incredible increase in poverty. Child poverty stands at about 18 percent of the children in the region and much higher in some of the countries, especially the former Soviet Union countries. This brings with it a whole series of problems, only one of which is manifested in trafficking and sexual exploitation."
One factor contributing to the rise in trafficking, Cohen says, is the large number of children in public care throughout the region who have little assistance in making the transition to adulthood.
Cohen says in the past decade, the number of children in public care in the 27 transition countries has risen to 1.5 million from 1 million. Families hit by economic hardship have often had to resort to turning their children over to state care. As children approach their late teens, Cohen says, they tend to turn toward a life on the street.
"When a young person who has been institutionalized reaches the age of 16 to 18, they are expected to re-integrate into society without either themselves being prepared to do so and without society having the mechanisms or the support systems in place for them to find work and housing."
The eagerness for a better life abroad has made women and girls especially vulnerable to traffickers' claims of better job opportunities, according to international relief officials. They repeatedly cite Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania as the main sources for trafficked girls, many of whom are brought to Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania, where they are often sold to local gangs to be trafficked to Western Europe for prostitution.
The UN representative for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Robert Paiva, tells RFE/RL that the Balkans have become a final destination for a growing number of trafficked women and children. "What we're seeing more and more of -- and we have for the past couple of years -- is young women, increasingly in the Balkans, down to the age of 12 and 13 sometimes, which wasn't so much the case when we started working in this field back in the mid-1990s."
The IOM has also found that Kyrgyzstan has become a hub of international trafficking rings that transport girls through Russia to Western Europe and through China to Japan and Australia. Paiva says the trafficking rings appear to be operating in a similar manner to the networks smuggling drugs and guns through the region. "Everybody is seeing increasing evidence that, given the big money to be made, these trafficking networks have evolved toward the same kind of organized crime networks that are running other 'commodities' -- that people are a new commodity."
Experts like Paiva and UNICEF's Cohen say there is growing awareness in the region of trafficking in women and children. All countries in the region have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and many have also ratified a protocol that deals with sexual exploitation.
Paiva said he hopes this week's UN session will help trigger greater regional cooperation on the issue, resulting in tougher, more uniform policing against traffickers. Cohen says that fighting one of the main roots of the problem -- poverty -- must become a top priority or the marginalization and victimization of children will persist.
The UN conference is drawing more than 60 heads of state and government, including the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, Romania, Macedonia, and Albania and the prime minister of Slovenia.
Romanian President Ion Iliescu will play an especially active role at the conference. In addition to his speech to the General Assembly, scheduled for today at 1530 Prague time, he is due to take part in a discussion on de-institutionalizing children and a panel on 10 May led by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson on combating child trafficking.