Kristian Walker, a 12-year-old from Sweden, was vacationing with family members in Thailand when the deadly tsunami hit Dec. 26. Family members have reason to believe he survived nature's worst, but now fear he may have become the victim of a human predator.
According to his family and authorities, a boy matching Kristian's description was seen Monday with an unknown man at a hospital. They have not been seen since, and Swedish and Thai police are looking for the boy amid his family's worries that he has been kidnapped.
"He was taken there by a middle-aged European-looking man, dark hair, mustache. Then the stranger and Kristian disappeared again," said Dan Walker, Kristian's father.
A German man sought in Kristian's disappearance was cleared today after questioning, Thai police said. Police confirmed the man's account that he helped reunite two German boys with their parents and a Swedish youth with his mother, Sgt. Vichai Boonruen said.
But Kristian remains missing.
Agencies providing tsunami disaster relief are cautioning that the most vulnerable survivors face peril from exploitation and illegal adoptions in a region already known for human trafficking and child prostitution. They already have received unconfirmed reports of such things happening.
"There are probably thousands who have lost one or both parents in this disaster and thousands who have been separated," said Dean Owen, a spokesman for the relief agency World Vision. "Children oftentimes are preyed upon by individuals who want to use them as prostitutes -- boys and girls, some as young as 8 or 9 years old."
UNICEF has issued a list of priorities for caring for children in the disaster area, among them protecting them from exploitation. "It's definitely a concern of ours," said UNICEF spokeswoman Karen Dukess. "We don't have a lot of confirmed reports so the scale of the problem is not yet known."
If such trafficking occurs, the youngest and most defenseless of the tsunami's victims could face a new set of horrors.
Of particular alarm, Dukess said, are text messages received in Malaysia from unknown sources offering tsunami orphans for adoption. "It's a very serious concern," she said. "Children were exploited before the tsunami, and having lost all their protection -- the protection of home, family, community -- they're about as vulnerable as a child can be."
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the department is working with governments to prevent children from being victimized. "We are appalled by these reports and are horrified that thousands of children orphaned by this disaster are vulnerable to exploitation by criminal elements who seek to profit from their misery," Ereli said.
The State Department is assisting nongovernmental organizations with the return and repatriation of children, he said.
"We have also sent out an alert to all of our NGO partners that are in South and Southeast Asia warning of the potential for human trafficking and asking them to spread the word among relief workers in Asia," Ereli said, "and we are offering guidelines to officials and volunteers in the region designed to minimize the risk of human trafficking in and around camps where displaced and homeless are gathering."