Child trafficking takes new forms in Southeast Asia

Next week, Japan hosts a conference on sexually exploited children. Some say it ignores other problems.

Head downcast, the boy peers nervously between strands of thick, black hair that fall in front of his eyes.

He won't give his name. He is reluctant even to sit at the table with an adult stranger. Trust does not come easily.

When he was 12, his parents in rural Cambodia sold him to a trafficker who forced him to beg on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand, and the resort town Pattaya. He lived with seven other children in one room. All were Cambodian. Some were as young as six.

"The trafficker told my parents he would send them $55 a month," the boy says. "But I would earn $18 or $25 every day or night I begged."

Over the next three years, the boy escaped twice and made his way home. But the trafficker found him, repurchased him, and took him back to Thailand. The second time, his parents sold his younger brother as well.

Finally, the boy, now 15, wound up at the Battambang Reception Center in Battambang, Cambodia. Since its founding three years ago, the center, on a pothole-ridden road 75 miles from the Thai border, has sheltered children who make it back to Cambodia. At first, most were teenage girls exploited in the vast and lucrative sex trade. But lately, aid workers say, they are also helping younger children, mostly boys, forced to beg or perform manual labor in Thailand.

"There are now many more reports of exploitation for labor, begging, and domestic work, not just prostitution as it was before," says Thetis Mangahas, regional adviser for the International Labor Organization's (ILO) international program for the elimination of child labor.

The Mekong region of Southeast Asia has seen rapid growth in the past five years of children trafficked from poorer countries - Cambodia, Laos, Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Vietnam - into relatively wealthy Thailand for purposes besides sex. And with the second world congress against commercial sexual exploitation of children set to begin Dec. 17 in Yokohama, Japan, some experts say a broader focus is needed.

"Child prostitution is dwarfing issues of child labor and begging, and these children are [also] in very hazardous situations and are being exploited," says Margie de Monchy, UNICEF's East Asia and Pacific regional adviser for child protection.

"There is the sense that some of these other forms of trafficking are being lost. But if we don't take a specific focus, then it's hard to get things done on an international level," says Ms. de Monchy, who is working on some of the legal issues to be addressed at next week's congress.

Exact figures, even reasonable estimates, of children trafficked are nearly impossible to calculate, according to the numerous nongovernmental and state-run organizations in this region.

Still, a report released Friday by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, as part of the Yokohama conference, said 30-35 percent of sex workers in the Mekong are between ages 12 and 17.

Another recent study, by the UN-affiliated Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), found there are 1 million child victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation alone in the Mekong region. "And if you' re talking about trafficking for nonsexual purposes, there's just no figures available, because they can be in places where they're very hard to find," says Laura Skolnik, ESCAP's social affairs officer.

Smuggling children into Thailand is not difficult. At the Cambodian border town of Poipet, thousands of people cross over and under a chaotic bridge each day. With hundreds of children working at the border pushing carts, selling flowers, and begging, police on both sides pay little attention to who crosses.

Corruption and insufficient resources can mean that even traffickers who are caught, are rarely punished. "There's a problem of corruption and lack of law enforcement in the countries throughout the region, because [the traffickers] act like a network of organized crime, transnational crime, with complexity and influence and money involved," says Thailand Senior State Attorney Piyatida Jermhansa. "Even though we have the laws, it's kind of a failure because there are only one or two cases [of traffickers] indicted to the court."

Meanwhile, at the Battambang Center, the boy awaits a decision on his permanent relocation. It's not clear if he will be sent home a third time.

"There are some situations where [the children] can be reunited with their family. But often, the family needs support in terms of their own sustainable survival," says Linda Manning, technical advisor to the shelter for the International Organization for Migration.

"Some [children] who have been repatriated wind up back on the streets of Bangkok before the social worker who took them gets there."

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