Dark side of paradise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MORE THAN a third of the victims killed during the South Asian tsunamis were children -- but the worry now is for the children who lived. Lost, separated from their families, orphaned, these youngest survivors need food, water and shelter just like the tens of thousands of others devastated by the disaster. The plight of these most fragile victims has generated an outpouring of aid -- and, tragically, made them easy targets for the nefarious child traffickers operating in that part of the world.

The underside of paradise is dark indeed.

Relief organizations working in the storm-ravaged areas should follow the lead of Save the Children USA and other agencies and begin registering unaccompanied children found in camps for the homeless.

Although actual reports of child kidnappings have been difficult to confirm, the Indonesian government, recognizing the potential for abuse, took the right step recently in imposing a temporary ban on children under 16 leaving the hard-hit Aceh province. If some find trafficking stories hard to believe, consider this report from a UNICEF spokesman in Indonesia: The organization's office in Malaysia received a text message advertising for sale 300 orphaned children from Aceh.

Sexual exploitation of children is an established business in Southeast Asia. UNICEF puts the number of women and children trafficked in Indonesia alone at 100,000 a year. Aceh province is not far from the port of Medan and another known transit point for traffickers, according to reports. Thailand also has a thriving sex trade that features girls as young as 12.

The impoverished state of many families in this region has led some desperate parents to do the unthinkable -- sell their children. But at the same time, this is a culture with strong family ties. Experts assessing the plight of children in the disaster areas suggest that relatives and extended families will eventually assume responsibility for those orphaned, if they haven't already.

But the way to offer these displaced and parentless children some protection is to register them. Children either too young or too traumatized would be hard pressed to defend themselves from predators posing as good Samaritans.

In the small rural community of Gue Gajan in Aceh province, Save the Children staffers interviewed and identified 700 unaccompanied children. Areas should be set up in displaced persons camps specifically for children to safeguard them from strangers and exploitation. Measures such as these would help reduce the risk of children being victimized yet again.

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