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."
Yesterday, UNICEF spokesman John Budd, based in Banda Aceh, said the group had two confirmed reports of attempted child trafficking, but he did not immediately provide any further details.
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.
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 AP in an interview on 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 said.
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 General Da'i Bachtiar said on Monday he had ordered provincial commanders around the country, especially in and near Aceh, to be alert to possible child trafficking.