Child trafficking is rampant in Southeast Asia, with hundreds of thousands of children caught up in this lucrative and shadowy business. VOA'S Nancy-Amelia Collins looks at the situation in the Philippines, where poverty is high and jobs are scarce, and unscrupulous recruiters trick parents into selling their children into prostitution and slavery.
Child trafficking has become big business in the Philippines, where children are lured from villages across the archipelago with promises of high-paying jobs in and around the nation's capital, Manila.
But once there, most girls end up in the sex industry, and boys often end up working as virtual slaves on farms and in fish markets.
In Manila, U.N. Children's Fund child protection officer Victoria Juat says naive children and parents are lured by an old trick.
"Normally they are promised, words like, 'Okay you will be a house help, you will be a saleslady, you will be a cashier in this restaurant.' But no, it will be something else," said Victoria Juat. "Later they find out no, they will be brought to a brothel, they will be brought to karaoke bars and they will become something else."
The crime of trafficking children exists throughout Southeast Asia. According to the State Department, the largest number of victims trafficked annually in the world come from this region, often to feed the booming sex-tourism industry.
As early as the mid-1990s, UNICEF estimated that close to 200,000 foreign child laborers, 70 percent of them boys, had been lured into Thailand from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Southern China. Tens of thousands are trafficked within their own borders. UNICEF says as many as 35 percent of sex workers in the Mekong River nations are under the age of 17.
UNICEF also says Thailand is a regional hub through which trafficked children are diverted to other cities and countries in the region, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. Cecilia Flores Oebande, the president of Visayan Forum Foundation, a private organization in the Philippines that helps to rescue and care for trafficked children, says it is a lucrative business.
"It is, next to drugs and arms smuggling, it is the second most profitable business here in the Philippines," said Cecilia Flores Oebande.
Most of the children are brought to the capital by ship, the main mode of transport in this nation of more than 7,100 islands.
The Visayan Forum has teamed up with the Philippine coast guard, the government's Port Authority, and the country's largest shipping company, Aboitez, to keep a sharp eye on arriving boats in the main ports, looking for possible traffickers traveling with groups of children.
The organization has operations in four main ports serving Manila, and says it rescues between 20 and 60 children a week. But officials say thousands are never found.
Across the street from Manila's main North Harbor port, Visayan Forum runs an emergency shelter where rescued children stay for several days while social workers attempt to locate their parents.
Marina Ulleque is a social worker with the Visayan Forum. She meets the boats at Manila's busy international sea port and hands out cards with emergency numbers to possible child victims, telling they can get help.
She says her work has its dangers. The Visayan Forum has filed nine criminal cases against traffickers on behalf of 31 children during the past three years. No trafficker has been convicted, but Ms. Ulleque says those arrested will sometimes threaten workers from her organization.
"Sometimes they send their lawyers here and also they say, 'I am the relative of senator so-and-so and I am the friend of the station commander or the port police,' something like that, so we are being harassed," said Marina Ulleque.
One victim hoping for justice is 17-year-old Menchu, who has been staying for more than a year at a Visayan Forum safe house in Manila waiting for the case of the men who allegedly trafficked her to come to trial.
Menchu, who comes from a large, poor family on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, was recruited along with a group of friends with promises of high-paying jobs in a Manila restaurant.
Menchu says that while on the boat, she and her friends saw two men approach their recruiter, and overheard them say the girls looked young and fresh.
The terrified girls told the ship's authorities, and the traffickers were arrested, but Menchu is still waiting for her day in court.
The president of Visayan Forum, Cecilia Flores Oebande, says urgent action must be taken to tackle the problem.
"This is urgent, every day," she said. "We are running out of time, because every day there are children being trafficked. We need to fast-track our action or else it's maybe too late for all of us."
Despite the efforts of local and international anti-trafficking groups, the problem is growing in Southeast Asia. Many experts say that the extreme poverty in the Philippines, Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Indonesia, combined with poor law enforcement and corruption, means that traffickers will continue to prey on the region's children