Are traffickers exploiting the tsunami?

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With thousands of children left orphaned by the southern Asia tsunami, authorities are concerned for children’s safety in a region where trafficking networks are entrenched and where markets for forced labor and sexual slavery thrive. There is fear that trafficking rings might be preying on children left vulnerable in the social chaos produced by the tragedy.

“For exploiters,” said Lisa Thompson, who heads up anti-trafficking efforts for the Salvation Army, “any situation that leaves children homeless and orphaned is like the scent of a wounded animal to a wolf.” Dr. Laura Lederer, who pioneered research on trafficking, echoed the same fears, “Places where there is political or economic instability, civil war or natural disaster are most likely to be targeted by traffickers.”

Ambassador John Miller, who heads up the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons office, summed up concerns: “Trafficking of children has been going on in this region and elsewhere long before the tsunami. While cases of child trafficking resulting from the tsunami have yet to be confirmed, I believe wherever there is chaos, the opportunities for traffickers increase.”

Dr. Donna Hughes, a University of Rhode Island professor and leading expert on trafficking, agrees: “Predators are always looking for ways to prey on the vulnerable, so it shouldn’t surprise us that a disaster that creates victims and chaos has become a prime hunting ground for them. Still, we should remember that on many of these beaches, pedophiles and sexual predators abuse and exploit boys, girls and women every day of the year.”

The affected nations are establishing measures to protect orphaned children. In the Aceh region of Indonesia where 35,000 children have lost at least one parent, police have been put on alert against exploitation of the children and special guards have been posted in refugee camps. Last year, Indonesia made significant progress in combating trafficking with 125 reported trafficking-related investigations, 67 prosecutions and 27 convictions. In addition, crisis centers were built and nongovernmental organizations began providing services to victims.

With such progress, Indonesia has laid a foundation for countering post-tsunami criminal activity and since the tragedy, they have barred anyone from taking orphans out of the country until all are registered. Such moves will deter the traffickers, but officials fear that the proximity of Indonesia’s ports already known as transit points for criminal networks may have enabled gangs to ship children out before officials could mobilize protective efforts.

India, too, is concerned about the exploitation of children orphaned by the tragedy. The government has accounted for all the children in the hardest-hit state, Tamil Nadu, and the government is building an orphanage and opening a bank account for each of the orphans. Tamil Nadu initiated action last year against 90 possible traffickers and 550 employers for child-labor infractions of children believed to be trafficking victims. Neither Thailand nor Sri Lanka has been as aggressive, but they are working with the hospitals to protect children and they already have stringent adoption policies.

In response to questions about what can be done to help in the affected nations, Ambassador Miller said, “Right now we have contacted (non-government organizations), our embassies and foreign governments with steps to take to reduce trafficking opportunities, e.g., registration of children in refugee camps, education of camp workers, warnings to children in camps, increased scrutiny at airports of adults accompanied by children, etc. We are in constant communication with charitable groups and international organizations on the ground to help us identify child trafficking situations and pursuant to President Bush’s anti-trafficking in persons initiative, to help us set up or expand anti-child trafficking programs.”

Certainly the threat to children at this critical time should provide added impetus for the affected nations to launch concerted efforts against pedophiles because any abuse and exploitation against “the most innocent and vulnerable” is, in the words of President Bush, “a special kind of evil.”

Janice Shaw Crouse heads the anti-trafficking efforts for Concerned Women for America, a conservative organization that promotes pro-life, pro-marriage and pro-family policies.

2005, Concerned Women for America. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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