Fearing exploitation of children, Indonesia steps up restrictions

UNICEF and other groups have warned about gangs.
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- Fearing child-trafficking gangs will exploit the chaos of the tsunami disaster, Indonesia has placed restrictions on youngsters leaving the country, ordered police commanders to be on the lookout for trafficking and posted special guards in refugee camps.
UNICEF and other child welfare groups warn that the gangs -- who are well-established in Indonesia -- may well be whisking orphaned children into trafficking networks, selling them into forced labor or even sexual slavery in wealthier neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
Such trafficking, if confirmed, would vastly deepen the suffering of children already struck hard by the Dec. 26 massive earthquake and tsunami. Indonesia estimates that 35,000 children on Sumatra island's Aceh province lost one or both parents to the disaster.
Fueling the suspicions, many Indonesians have received mobile phone text messages this week inviting them to adopt orphans from Aceh. The police are investigating the messages.
It's not clear whether such messages are pranks, real adoption offers or linked in some way to trafficking networks. The Associated Press was unable to get through to phone numbers given on two of the messages.
But child welfare experts warn the messages could be a sign that children are being removed from the province, reducing their chances of being reunited with relatives or surviving parents who may be searching for them.
"I'm sure it's happening," said Birgithe Lund-Henriksen, child protection chief in UNICEF's Indonesia office. "It's a perfect opportunity for these guys to move in."
No specific cases
Officials concede that so far they have little hard evidence of specific cases, but say the aftermath of a natural disaster is a perfect breeding ground for such traffic. Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven from their homes, children have been separated from their families and the deaths of parents leave their offspring especially vulnerable to criminals.
In Thailand, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said Tuesday that his government was working closely with hospitals to prevent human trafficking gangs from taking advantage of the situation, although he stressed that there was no firm indication that they were.
The threat of trafficking appears more serious in Indonesia than any of the other southern Asian nations hit by the tsunami, probably because the scale of death and destruction is greatest here and the territory more remote, UNICEF director Carol Bellamy told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.
Making matters worse, the hardest-hit area in Indonesia -- Aceh -- is not far from the port city of Medan and nearby island of Batam, which are well-known transit points for gangs shipping children and teenagers out of Indonesia.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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