Fearing child-trafficking gangs will exploit the chaos of the tsunami disaster, Indonesia has slapped restrictions on youngsters leaving the country, ordered police commanders to be on the lookout for trafficking and posted special guards in refugee camps.
The moves this week come amid concerns by child welfare groups such as UNICEF that the gangs — who are well-established in Indonesia — are whisking orphaned children into trafficking networks, selling them into forced labor or even sexual slavery in wealthier neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
"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."
Such trafficking, if true, would vastly deepen the suffering of children already struck hard by the disaster: Indonesia estimates 35,000 Acehnese children lost one or both parents in the disaster.
Fueling the suspicions, many Indonesians are getting mobile phone text messages this week inviting them to adopt orphans from the tsunami-savaged province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra. The messages are being investigated by police.
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.
Rumors about possible trafficking are widespread in Indonesia, but officials concede they have little hard evidence of specific cases yet.
Still, a disaster on the scale of Asia's tsunami catastrophe is a perfect breeding ground for such traffic, experts say. 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.
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.
"This is a situation that lends itself to this kind of exploitation," UNICEF director Carol Bellamy told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. "Our concern here is ... whether these children are frankly turned into child slaves, if you will, or abused and exploited."
"They could be put to work — domestic labor, sex trade, a whole series of potential abuses," she added.
Bellamy said it was not clear whether any children already had been trafficked, but she couldn't rule it out. Such smuggling did not appear to be widespread and UNICEF and other agencies were working hard to make sure it didn't become a bigger problem, she added.
Indonesian officials were already taking steps.
The government has temporarily banned Acehnese children under 16 from leaving the country, and national police chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar said Monday he had ordered provincial commanders around the country, especially in and near Aceh, to be alert to possible child trafficking.
He said police had also placed officers in some Aceh refugee camps, where they were urging people to be skeptical of anyone claiming to be from a charitable group aiding children or saying they are related to an orphan.
Indonesia's chief detective, Lt. Gen. Suyitno Landung, said police were aware of rumors and news reports that some children had been taken from Aceh, either by traffickers or well-meaning people wanting to find families for them. He said police were investigating but did not yet know whether widespread trafficking was occurring.
Bellamy applauded the government's announcement Monday that it was temporarily barring anyone from taking Acehnese children out of the country.
"This policy is aimed at anticipating the issue of child trafficking as well as illegal adoption of orphans," Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin said.
Children must stay in Aceh until all are registered, a project that could take a month. After that, they will be allowed to leave, preferably for other parts of Sumatra.
Bellamy said registering Acehnese children was a top priority and would help reunite families.
UNICEF and aid agencies plan to set up special centers focused on children's needs within five Aceh refugee camps by the end of the week, and 15 more soon after, she said. Workers will help protect children from traffickers and try to identify and register them.
The threat of trafficking appears more serious in Indonesia than any of the other southern Asian nations hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami, probably because the scale of death and destruction is greatest there and the territory more remote, Bellamy said.
By Beth Gardiner
By Beth Gardiner