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By Anthony Vaccaro

As the ocean waters finally subsided in Asia, and the world grappled with how best to help those most devastated, a new threat emerged from a secretive network of people intent on using the tragedy to their financial advantage.

In Indonesia, child trafficking gangs have been selling children to foreign prostitution and slavery rings for years. Now they are using the confusion and unrest that has followed the tsunami to their advantage – and thousands of recently orphaned children are at risk.

“It is a crime against humanity,” said Anita Sheth, a senior analyst at Save the Children, a non-governmental organization that has been active in Indonesia for 15 years. “Traffickers pose as family members, and camp supervisors don’t have documentation on the children so they can’t trace the child back,” Sheth said.

The massive displacement of people has left thousands of children vulnerable. Sheth recounted a story from one camp where 700 of the 3,200 homeless were children without parents. Both Sheth and Barb Strang, spokesperson for UNICEF, said that registering all orphaned children, such as India already has done, is the first step in protecting them from the well-connected gangs.

“Traffickers know the villagers. They see an opportunity,” Sheth said. She went on to explain that the trafficking system is deeply rooted and highly clandestine. “Traffickers are totally organized,” Sheth said. “(People who work at) hotels, airports, hospitals, and travel agencies are all involved.”

Sheth said that this high level of organization allowed traffickers to move 20 children from Sumatra into Malaysia in the week following the tsunami. Once in Malaysia, the children are sold into the sex trade or used as forced labour. The trafficking of children has become such a lucrative business that the United Nations estimates that it ranks third behind drugs and arms in terms money generated by illegal activities.

Even countries as far away as Canada are blemished by its activities. And while the Indonesian Embassy in Ottawa would not confirm Sheth’s contention that 20 children had been abducted, the information counsellor at the Embassy, Aang Iswayudha, said that some abductions had occurred in the Sumatra region near the Malaysian border.

Authorities in Indonesia have long known that Sumatra’s proximity to Malaysia, coupled with its staggering poverty, has been attracting child traffickers. The upheaval and chaos resulting from the tsunami has exasperated the problem to a point that, Strang believes, is beyond the governments scope.

“They can’t handle it by themselves,” Strang said from the UNICEF office in Toronto. Still, Iswayudha believes that the Indonesian government, with the help of organization such as Save the Children and UNICEF, has done well to make it as difficult as possible for traffickers to get children out of the country, and, Iswayudha said, the government does not need help from foreign countries. “We are better off taking care of our own children,” Iswayudha said.

For Iswayudha and the Indonesian government, the ability to protect their own children speaks not only to the competence of the government but also the mettle of the Indonesian people. “It’s an appalling situation,” Iswayudha said of the traffickers, his voice rising with emotion. “We are talking about our own children.”

The government’s resolve has manifested itself in increased border patrols and airport security and a massive push to register orphaned children. Foreign adoption of children has also been stopped for fear of traffickers posing as would-be adopters. Iswayudha claims that the entire country is rallying around the protection of the children.

Localities less affected by the tsumami have taken thousands of orphans under their protection. According to Iswayudha such efforts show that Indonesia can take care of its own children, something that for Iswayudha is important to the psyche of his country. He agreed with Sheth that the government’s increased security coupled with intense media scrutiny has temporarily put a lid on trafficking.

But he is concerned that in the long term, regions in his country that remain in the grips of poverty will continue to fall victim to the ruthlessness of the traffickers. “The primary cause is always poverty,” said Iswayudha. “One million rupees (the sum offered by some trafficking gangs to families), makes it hard for some to avoid temptation.”

And while the poverty in places such as Sumatra plays a part, so to does demand in foreign countries. It is on this point that Sheth emphasizes Canada’s role. “If demand in places like Canada continues, then borderlines will become porous,” Sheth said. She said that Canada serves as both a destination and a transition point for the child trafficking trade.

Save the Children is actively lobbying the Department of Justice to pass independent legislation that will set international standards for the prosecution of child traffickers and the protection of its victims.

The legislation is currently under review. Until such legislation is passed, Canada will remain a middle-of-the -road country in terms of its efforts to snuff out trafficking, Sheth said.

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