Five days after the Southeast Asia tsunami swallowed coastal towns and villages in 12 countries, a C-130 Hercules transport plane whisked hundreds of Acehnese refugees from Indonesia to the North Sumatra capital of Medan. There, a little boy named Raja, 5, stepped out onto the tarmac. Soon after, a couple who said they were Raja's parents appeared to collect him.
But they weren't his parents. Riza Mutiara, coordinator of the Aceh Sepakat nongovernmental organization, noticed that the couple didn't even look Acehnese. When she challenged them, they changed their story: They were actually Raja's next-door neighbors, they said. But Ms. Mutiara suspected the couple had been paid by child-traffickers to steal the boy and stopped them from taking him.
Other children didn't fare as well. After tsunami victims began flooding into Medan, unidentified people took about 50 children away, Ms. Mutiara told Kyodo News International. Since then, global news agencies have reported numerous attempts to buy and sell children orphaned or displaced by the disaster.
About one-third of those who died in the tsunami were kids, according to UNICEF, and about 1.5 million children have been displaced. For human traffickers, the latter-particularly those without parents-are targets of opportunity. The U.S. State Department is concerned enough about the phenomenon to halt adoptions from the region last week.
Globally, about half a million children each year are sold or forced into the commercial sex trade or slave labor, according to the State Department. Among the 12 nations ravaged by the tsunami, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and others are known hotbeds of child-trafficking where officials fail to fully comply with international standards for preventing such crimes.
In Sri Lanka, for example, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an armed political faction, regularly conscripts children into slave labor and military service. In the tsunami's aftermath, "the orphan status of what now appears to be more than 10,000 children increases their vulnerability to traffickers and pedophiles in countries where there was already a significant problem," said Sharon Cohn, Vice President for Interventions at International Justice Mission, a human-rights aid group. After the disaster, the organization sent teams of investigators to confirm or dispel reports of human trafficking.
Reports continue to surface. Last week in Sri Lanka, A.H. Somadasa, 67, was arrested at a relief camp after police received a tip that he tried to sell his granddaughters, ages 7 and 9, to foreigners who showed up at the shelter. Mr. Somadasa's relatives back his claim that he was only trying to secure aid for his family and had no intention of selling the girls.
Also in Sri Lanka, the National Childcare Protection Authority (NCPA) arrested a man after he tried to sell two displaced children to a UNICEF official posing as a child-trafficker. The arrest was part of an NCPA sting designed to protect tsunami orphans, who number at least 100 in that country.
Officials in some nations are attacking the problem broadside. In the Aceh region of Indonesia, an estimated 35,000 children have lost at least one parent. Police there have posted special guards in refugee camps to ward off kidnappers and con men. But while Indonesian authorities in 2003 cracked down on human traffickers, corruption and a weak judiciary remain serious impediments to the effective prosecution of traffickers there. Similar problems wrack Thailand, where, though prosecutors secured 20 trafficking convictions in 2003, only one of 18 police officers accused of facilitating such crimes was convicted.
To curb the potential for U.S. traffickers to exploit child tsunami victims, the State Department has for now quashed U.S. adoptions of children from affected nations. Meanwhile, American officials are working to educate and equip tsunami refugee workers, said department spokesman Adam Ereli, and are distributing security guidelines aimed at preventing abductions and abuse.
The United States, said Mr. Ereli, "is horrified that thousands of children orphaned by this disaster are vulnerable to exploitation by criminal elements who seek to profit from their misery."