Before the debris settled on the devastating Southeast Asia tsunami of December 26, reports of human trafficking emerged from the region. With the death toll now higher than 200,000, tens of thousands still missing, and entire costal villages decimated, it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse for the nations involved. Yet as incomprehensible as it seems, evidence is mounting that child trafficking gangs are preying on the region’s thousands of children who are orphaned or separated from their parents.


It is estimated that 1.5 million children were affected by the tsunami, and tens of thousands have lost one or both parents. These shell-shocked children, many of whom wandered unaccompanied though their destroyed villages, have lost everything in life that is familiar to them. Their homes and towns are destroyed, their family and friends gone. Many have had nothing to eat or drink and no place to sleep.


It is easy to see how young victims of a natural disaster become targets to those perpetrating one of the world’s worst disasters. The destruction affords the “perfect opportunity” for traffickers in Indonesia to sell children into forced labor and sexual slavery in neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, UNICEF spokesperson John Budd told the BBC. He also confirmed reports of text messages distributed around Asia advertising orphans for sale.


According to the United Nations, the trafficking of children is a lucrative business; it ranks third in the world (behind drugs and arms sales) in terms of the money it generates. And many of the areas hit hardest by the recent tidal waves have historically been notorious for the reprehensible commerce in innocent lives.


“We know that 100,000 children are [coerced] into the trade in that region of the world every year,” says Gary Haugen, president and founder of International Justice Mission (IJM). After the tsunami, IJM, a non-profit human rights organization that investigates and intervenes on behalf of the victims of child sex trafficking, immediately sent investigators to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other known hotbeds for sex trafficking activity in the region.


“This is not a new problem for this area of the world, it’s been going on for years and years, predating the tsunami,” agrees Joe Mettimano, senior child protection advisor for World Vision. “The region’s sex trafficking problems have been well documented, but as a result of the tsunami, thousands more orphans will be vulnerable to traffickers. Getting them to a safe place, to special refugee camps, is a priority. There we can help set up their transition back to real life, and start the process of reunification, getting them back to their families and neighborhoods.”


According to the publication Christian Today, “the UK-based charity Save the Children acknowledged that effort in child protection is acute. Especially in the worst hit area, the Aceh Province of Indonesia… Save the Children is moving quickly to identify unaccompanied children and send trained child protection officers to sites such as camps for internally displaced persons to help protect vulnerable children from being trafficked or exploited.”


Local governments are taking steps to prevent the abduction of children as well. Indonesia is prohibiting children under the age of 16 from leaving the country without proper documentation. Many orphan refugee camps are being guarded by local police. Many of the devastated nations are putting moratoriums and restrictions on foreign adoptions.