East Asia is an area of economic expansion. But along with the growing trade in goods and services comes trade of another kind -- the trafficking of young children.
Young homeless boys sniff glue on the streets of Bangkok.
East Asia is a very diverse region, from Myanmar in the West to the Pacific islands in the East, from the ASEAN region in the South right up to Mongolia in the North. Although almost all children in this region go to school and there is high protection against disease, UNICEF still has their work cut out for them.
The greatest concern is the spread of HIV/AIDS, says Richard Bridle, deputy director of UNICEF's regional office in Bangkok.
But ranked second is a problem that is growing equally fast, and getting far less media attention: child trafficking. In many ways, Thailand's economic development -- especially its urban development -- has only served to encourage this trade.
"Families are still struggling to survive, and often, the poverty and the disparities between countries, and also between rural areas and the towns, pushes children and families to seek better opportunities," says Ravi Kaneta, who works in the child protection section at UNICEF, which focuses on child trafficking and sexual exploitation.
He says Thailand has become a regional magnet for trafficked children, and the routes are only now becoming clear. The children end up working in factories, as beggars on the streets, or worse, in brothels.
Helping children cope
These children suffer great emotional damage. Many who are rescued are often traumatized by their experiences, and need a lot of care, says Sanphasit Koompraphant, director of The Center for the Protection of Children's Rights in Bangkok.
Prostitutes in Asia
"They have very serious emotional effects, particularly if they have been forced to be prostitutes," says Koompraphant. This is not only a problem at the moment, but also in these childrens’ futures. "They do not have a very good family life. And they cannot take care of their children very well because they have some emotional problems," he says. "We have to provide lots of help, particularly if the children have been trafficked for prostitution."
It's difficult to know exactly how many children are enslaved like this every year. Trafficking is growing very quickly in a region where the documentation of human migration is poor. Koompraphant can only make an estimate. "It is quite difficult to monitor, but for children, maybe many hundred thousands."
Far from home
UNICEF estimates that every year, around a million children in the region are taken to work in factories, as beggars on the streets, or worse, as sex slaves. Some go willingly or as a duty to their parents, others by force. But far away from home, nearly all are unprotected and vulnerable to abuse.
According to Kaneta, Thailand isn't always their final destination. "We have some indication of trafficking taking place further abroad, in Europe and North America, and we even have cases of children being rescued in Africa."
Amalee McCoy says that the trafficking of children to western countries is much more sophisticated. She is the regional officer for the international organization ECPAT, which is working to end child trafficking through better legislation and law enforcement worldwide.
Koompraphant confirms this, saying there are two serious loopholes in the migration process: adoption and, even more so, fake marriage.
"We did not investigate the marriage well enough, the reasons why they marry," he says. "I suppose we need to seriously consider how we can build up or legislate to target that group of traffickers who try to traffic children like this."
Governments can’t turn a blind eye
Some governments are beginning to recognize the problem and take action to control it. In March 1999, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched a global program to fight human trafficking. It saw the problem as being one of law enforcement. Several countries have now ratified a protocol that codified that program.
Small boy in Asia
ECPAT’s McCoy says a big part of the problem is that the authorities themselves are sometimes actively involved in the trafficking. "For international trafficking, it is more sophisticated. You absolutely cannot do those kinds of operations without the collusion of the government."
Koompraphant says law enforcement officials sometimes turn a blind eye to trafficking and sometimes even collude in it. "It's because the trafficking has been arranged by organized crime, which means it is organized corruption."
For the people trying to fight child trafficking, it often seems like a war with no end. Even though countermeasures are getting stronger, the number of children being trafficked every year is getting higher.