Commercial sexual exploitation of children is booming in Southeast Asia, with governments failing to do enough to protect young people, experts say.
"The recent economic downturn is set to drive more vulnerable children and young people to be exploited by the global sex trade," Carmen Madrinan, executive director of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual purposes (ECPAT), said.
"The indifference that sustains the criminality, greed and perverse demands of adults for sex with children and young people needs to end."
According to a recent report by the group, increasing poverty, reduced budgets for social services, and restrictive immigration laws in "destination countries" (which encourage children to avoid detection) are among the factors heightening children's vulnerability.
Added to that, deteriorating household living conditions often compel young people to abandon school to contribute to the family income, exposing them to risk as they seek livelihood options that could result in exploitation, the report states.
The International Labor Organization estimates that sex tourism contributes 2-14 percent of the gross domestic product of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), an estimated 1.8 million children (mainly girls but also a significant number of boys) enter the multi-billion dollar commercial sex trade annually.
Photo: Lynn Maung/IRIN
|Burmese children at a migrant learning centre in Mae Sot, western Thailand|
Economic and political pressures
In Thailand, hundreds of factories and projects have closed as a result of the global downturn, leaving thousands of workers - both Thai and foreign - unemployed.
Unemployment is rising at a rate of about 100,000 workers a month and may climb to 1.5 million by the end of the year, specialists say, putting an increasing number of young people at possible risk of exploitation.
"Many people come here and see how cheap it is to buy sex from someone vulnerable, especially in this economic climate, and they delude themselves into thinking they're helping the person out," Giorgio Berardi, programme officer for combating child-sex tourism at ECPAT, said.
UNICEF surveys indicate that 30 to 35 percent of all sex workers in the Mekong sub-region of Southeast Asia are between 12 and 17 years old.
Street children and stateless children are extremely vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, Amanda Bissex, UNICEF Thailand's chief of child protection, told IRIN.
"We need to improve law enforcement and the economic welfare of children," says Bissex, "but we also need to address people's attitudes and create an environment where there is zero tolerance for abuse of children, whether in their home country or overseas."
Earlier this year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) stated in its Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2009 that 79 percent of all global trafficking is for sexual exploitation, one of the world's fastest-growing criminal activities.
The report said the proportion of minors involved in various forms of human trafficking increased from about 15 percent to nearly 22 percent between 2003 and 2007.
In June 2009, the Obama administration expanded the US watch-list of countries suspected of not doing enough to combat human trafficking, putting more than four dozen nations - including Cambodia and the Philippines - on notice that they could face sanctions unless their records improved.
ECPAT also warns that the number of children and young people trafficked within countries is increasing.
Such trafficking frequently involves movement from rural to urban areas or from one city or town to another, without the need for travel documentation. This exploitation is likely to continue proliferating due to the profits generated by sex trafficking.