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Asia: Fears Rise About Plight Of Tsunami Orphans

UNICEF and other groups are warning that the threat to children is far from over (UNICEF courtesy photo) In the wake of the Asian tsunami disaster, a new tragedy is looming. Amid the chaos of the massive cleanup efforts, there are fears about the fate of thousands of children left parentless by the deadly waves. In addition to worries about psychological trauma, disease, and homelessness, child-welfare activists say they are concerned many of these children will fall into the hands of traffickers. Some of the tsunami-hit countries have already issued a one-year ban on adoption to prevent children from being smuggled into sex or labor rings abroad.

Prague, 7 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Nearly one-third of the more than 150,000 victims of December's tsunami disaster are believed to be children.

The tragedy is taking its toll on young survivors, as well.

Thousands of children lost their parents and other relatives in the space of just a few minutes. In the mass confusion that has followed the 26 December catastrophe, many children -- already traumatized by the event -- have been left alone and vulnerable to hunger, disease, and homelessness.

But welfare activists say children are also facing another, more sinister, threat: kidnapping by traffickers looking to sell them into labor and sex-slave markets.

Marc Vergara, a spokesman in Geneva for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said trafficking is endemic in that part of the world and that the recent catastrophe has only brought it into the spotlight.
"Because of the disaster, children are even more vulnerable to traffickers who are well-organized to operate under these conditions." -- UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara

"Southeast Asia is, in fact, notorious for child trafficking," Vergara said. "So it's not new, but when UNICEF or others talk about child trafficking in the region, outside of an emergency, no one seems to listen. So in fact, we should be saying that we are reminding people that this is actually taking place. And because of the disaster, children are even more vulnerable to traffickers who are well-organized to operate under these conditions."

UNICEF said today that it has confirmed a trafficking case in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the site of the worst devastation.

An official at UNICEF's Indonesia office says a 4-year-old boy was brought out of Banda Aceh by a couple claiming to be his parents. Police were alerted to the case when aid workers reported the couple were not consistent in their story, saying later the boy was not their son, but their neighbor.

European Union officials have proposed offering temporary asylum to young tsunami survivors as a way of preventing them from coming in harm's way.

Aid organizations have cautioned against speedy foreign adoptions, saying there is still a chance some children might eventually be reunited with their parents.

UNICEF, in fact, refers to those left without parents not as orphans, but as "unaccompanied children."

Several countries in the region, including Indonesia and Sri Lanka, have imposed temporary bans on foreign adoption as an antitrafficking measure.

But Vergara said, now as before, traffickers are highly organized and likely to continue their work despite such restrictions. He said child victims of trafficking most likely will be sold into slavery.

"They [the children] go from India to Nepal, from Nepal to India, to Bangladesh, to Thailand, of course, Cambodia, Indonesia itself. China, as well, is a big market," Vergara said. "There is trafficking within the countries and international trafficking. Some of the trafficking, of course, is for the sexual trade, not only in Thailand but other places as well. Some is for child labor. And others are for legal adoption abroad, because of course that's a very lucrative market."

With trafficking fears at the center of much media attention, there are other, equally real concerns about the region's tsunami children. One is helping them survive the trauma of seeing their family members washed away in the disaster. From that, Vergara said, it might take "months and months" to recover.