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Unicef confirms child traffic case

Jakarta, Jan. 7 (Reuters): The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) confirmed a case in Indonesia of trafficking in children orphaned or separated from parents by the Indian Ocean tsunami as ravaged countries were warned to be on high alert for kidnappers.

Reports of children being taken away surfaced soon after the killer waves swamped 13 nations, killing more than 153,000 people and leaving more than a million people injured and homeless. But the Unicef report is the first confirmed case.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) also said today that an Indonesian aid agency had reported seven cases of child-trafficking since the December 26 undersea earthquake that sent giant waves crashing ashore across Asia and East Africa.

Birgithe Lund-Henriksen, chief of the Unicef Indonesia child protection unit, said Unicef and Indonesian police had confirmed that a four-year-old boy was taken out of Banda Aceh, the capital of devastated Aceh province, by a couple claiming to be his parents.

Local police were alerted after non-governmental organisations (NGOs) became suspicious when the couple took the child to a hospital in Medan, 450 km southeast of Banda Aceh, she said.

'NGOs grew suspicious when the couple were not consistent in their story,' she said, adding they now say they are the boy's neighbours.

Lund-Henriksen said there were other reports of possible child-trafficking cases, including a sighting by an NGO worker of about 100 infants being carried in a speed boat in the middle of the night in Aceh province.

'We're absolutely concerned about trafficking. This is something that existed prior to the earthquake tsunami. And with syndicates in place, it's clear they will take advantage of the chaos that's going on now,' she said.

Lund-Henriksen said Medan had long been a departure point for smuggling children out of Indonesia for illegal adoption, forced labour, or work in the sex industry.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) warned affected countries to be on high alert against trafficking of orphans or other vulnerable people, adding that it already had child-trafficking experts working in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand as part of its emergency response to the tsunami.

'To date, actual confirmed cases of human trafficking remain minimal. But we are boosting our counter-trafficking operations and working with governments,' IOM spokeswoman Niurka Pinheiro said. Some 250,000 people are trafficked in, out and through the Southeast Asia region each year, according to IOM estimates.

EU refuge

The EU could offer temporary refuge to hundreds of thousands of children affected by the Asian tsunami to help them overcome their trauma, under a proposal by EU commissioner Franco Frattini.

Frattini told Italian newspaper La Repubblica he would propose bringing the children to Europe for several months to allow them to recover from the shock and to escape criminal gangs reportedly targeting lone children.

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