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In Southeast Asia, Child Sex Trade Goes on Unabated

March 25, 2006

Southeast Asia is one of the world's top destinations for people seeking sex with children, and signs of the trade are often evident. Hundreds of thousands of girls and boys are believed to be working in the sex trade in the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and other countries in an underground industry that inflicts untold emotional and physical harm on young lives. In one late-night scene at a Cambodian bar, half a dozen children played with a puppy and watched cartoons on television as Western men strolled outside. In Thailand, despite tougher law enforcement, foreigners are sometimes seen walking with young girls dressed in high heels and halter tops."Many of these countries do have certain laws in place. The issue is enforcement," said Ruben Rodriguez of the US-based International Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Police and courts struggle with a backlog of drug, murder and other cases. Child sex prosecutions are relatively rare, and tend to snare individual offenders rather than the trafficking networks that supply them. Many pedophiles pay off authorities or the families of victims, who are usually poor and eager to avoid the shame of a public trial. On 3 March 2006 in Vietnam, a court sentenced former British rocker Gary Glitter to three years in jail for molesting two girls, and his lawyer said he could be paroled sooner. The judge said the $2,000 that Glitter paid to each girl's family contributed to the lighter sentence from a possible maximum of seven years. Such an outcome could reinforce a perception of lax laws in Southeast Asia and attract foreign child molesters who face tougher penalties at home, experts said. In some cases settled out of court, they said, the destitute family of a young victim takes hush money even if the distraught child doesn't want the bribe. "There are more and more tourists coming, more and more danger for the children," said Christian Guth, a former French police officer who has assisted Cambodian authorities in investigating the child sex trade. The United States, Britain and Australia are among countries with laws allowing the prosecution of their citizens who sexually abuse children overseas. A US law from 2003 mandates a sentence of up to 30 years for anyone, at home or abroad, who has sex with a minor, defined as someone under the age of 18. But crafting legal cases based on evidence from another continent entails long delays, and sometimes requires victims to travel a long distance to testify. Some transient children are difficult to locate, especially for a small team of investigators from another country.

Most abusers Asian
Most perpetrators of child sex crimes in Asia are Asian. This month, Singapore became one of the first Asian countries to say it would amend its law to prosecute its citizens who have sex with minors overseas. The wealthy enclave is a short ferry ride from the Indonesian resort island of Batam, where sex tourism flourishes. The Philippines has a law that protects children against all forms of abuse, but it needs to be amended to cover the pervasive problem of child pornography on the Internet, said Anjanette Saguisag, a child protection officer at the UNICEF office in Manila. Few other countries in the region have specific legislation that targets child pornography offenses on computers. Saguisag said some sex offenders try to attract children through online chat rooms, sometimes pretending to be children themselves. Philippine activists are pushing lawmakers to upgrade the law, but the lobbying is expected to take a long time.

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