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Eastern Europe: UNICEF Official Says Child Trafficking Increasing

To mark today's International Day Against Child Labor, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is highlighting a recent study that shows an alarming rise in child trafficking, especially children coming from the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Prague, 12 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- UNICEF, citing a study this year by New York's Columbia University, says some 1.2 million children are trafficked each year around the world. While the number of children coming from Eastern Europe is not known, it's thought to be in the tens of thousands each year.

The study says traffickers typically offer money or the promise of money to parents in exchange for their children, some of whom are as young as 5 years old. The children are removed from their home countries and forced to work as laborers, beggars, and even prostitutes in wealthier countries.

The trade has thrived for years in places like Africa and South America, and increasingly, the study says, children from Albania, Moldova, Romania, and other relatively poor Eastern European countries are at risk.

Helga Kuhn is the spokeswoman for UNICEF in Germany. She spoke to RFE/RL by telephone this week from her office in Cologne.

Question: Why are children being trafficked? What kinds of jobs are they being forced to do?

Helga Kuhn: [The children] are forced to beg in the streets. That is one important point. Another [important point] is that they are forced to work as traders in the streets, selling small goods. And they are exploited. Every [bit] of their income is kept by the traffickers so that they don't have any income by themselves.

These children are very young. The ages start at five, six, or seven years. The other very big problem is mainly girls, [older girls] such as 11 or 12 year olds. They are forced into sexual exploitation and prostitution. That's a very big problem in the Balkans, and with Italy, as well.

Question: How does the system work? How are children separated from their parents?

Helga Kuhn: You have to understand this as an international network of traffickers. This network has middlemen in the countries of origin. Sometimes they even know the families they are contacting before, and they are promising: "Your child will have a good future when the child is going abroad. It will be better for him or her when he or she goes abroad because he or she earns some money and will send money back to you, so both sides will profit from this."

These middlemen will bring the children to the border, and at the border other persons are waiting for the children and misusing them for hard labor or sexual exploitation.

Question: Where are children most at risk?

Helga Kuhn: The greatest risk is there where the families and the children are the poorest. The poorest countries are the [main] countries of origin. Albania, Moldova, and Romania are poor countries, but we have other countries as well where we see the problem growing bigger and bigger. You can say that nearly all the states of the former Soviet Union are such high-risk countries. For example, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia itself.

Question: What can be done -- or is already being done -- to combat this problem?

Helga Kuhn: The most important step is to raise awareness. That's why such a day as [International Day Against Child Labor] is so important. You have to raise awareness and put pressure on the politicians and the governments. [This means] to put pressure on the child traffickers themselves and, of course, it's [very important] for us in the Western countries to raise awareness and put pressure on our own governments, as well, because we [are the recipient countries], and we can only be a recipient because there's a market for trafficked children.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.