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Czech Republic/Germany: UNICEF Stirs Controversy With Claims Of Widespread Child Prostitution At Border

The UN Children's Fund says the Czech-German border area is becoming a "marketplace" for child prostitution. In the report, released in Berlin, UNICEF says children as young as infants are being coerced into prostitution, often by their parents or other relatives.

Prague, 29 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For 12-year-old Karel, it was poverty that drove him into prostitution. "Before, I used to beg from the Germans in their cars. We have no money at home," he told social workers. "Then I just drove away with them."

Karel is just one of a growing number of boys and girls living off prostitution in the Czech-German border area, according to a report released yesterday by the UN International Children's Education Fund (UNICEF) and Ecpat, an international children's rights organization.

The authors say the border area has become a "marketplace" for child prostitution. They said they have observed some 500 boys and girls taking part in prostitution since they began their research in 1996.

Helga Kuhn, a UNICEF spokeswoman, said: "The situation is getting worse. The [study] found that since 1996 a marketplace for prostitution has been established, and it has grown to an extent which is worse than five years ago."

For the report, researchers spoke to children, as well as adult prostitutes, social workers, and police. They found that some of the children come from poor Czech or Slovak families. Often they are the victims of sex abuse at home -- or are the children of prostitutes. As one 10-year-old girl said, "My mom told me how I have to do it."

Others are trafficked by organized gangs of pimps from countries farther east like Moldova, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia. Beatings or torture are common.

Typically, the authors say, their clients are German pedophiles or sex tourists traveling the short distance across the border. But there are also cars from Austria or Italy.

Increasingly, these sex tourists have been asking specifically for children -- some say because they're less likely to catch HIV/AIDS from them. That, plus the overall increase in the sex industry in the area, may explain the flourishing trade, the authors say.

The children typically hang out near gas stations, bus stops, or restaurants in border towns or along the highways that straddle the border. Older children approach the men themselves, apparently begging for food or money. Sometimes they sell themselves for a few euros -- other times they only get candy. The report says women have even been seen holding small children in their arms and offering them to sex tourists in cars.

"The youngest children are really babies who are offered for prostitution, sometimes, in the streets," Kuhn said. "This is more of an exception. Most of the children are between 9 and 14 years old."

The report has the support of Christian Rau, UNICEF's patron in Germany and the wife of German President Johannes Rau. She said it is "appalling how children in our close neighborhood are unscrupulously exploited." She urged authorities to do more to protect them.

But the authorities in the Czech Republic -- where the report made headlines -- are dismissing the findings. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla called the report "unrealistic." Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said his department will study it. But he said a previous similar report turned out to be groundless.

A more junior Interior Ministry official, Jitka Gjuricova, went further, saying the report is "untrue" and was prompted by nongovernmental organizations trying to raise funds.

Interior Ministry spokesman Marie Masarikova was more diplomatic. She referred to a nationwide sweep earlier this month against forced prostitution, where police made several arrests -- but which uncovered no cases of child prostitution. "Neither the Czech Interior Ministry nor the police have any evidence to suggest that child prostitution is widespread in the Czech Republic," she said. "Not even a recent police sweep on a large number of brothels in the Czech Republic confirmed this."

UNICEF's Kuhn said they may have simply been looking in the wrong places. "That may be one important reason, that they're looking in the wrong places, because what the street workers [observed] is that child prostitution doesn't take place mainly in the brothels, but in the streets or private apartments," she said.

But Masarikova of the Czech Interior Ministry insists the report does not paint an accurate picture: "Nonetheless, we still insist that the police have no evidence that child prostitution is as widespread as the report says."

The report says authorities on both sides of the border have to take the problem much more seriously and cooperate more to bring offenders to justice.

Right now, the authors say, children are often treated as criminals or illegal migrants instead of as victims. Or they're told simply to get off the street. What they need, Kuhn said., is support and care to allow them to do that -- and to give evidence against the offenders. She said a group of social workers is now trying to raise funds for a children's shelter near the border area.