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."
Governments Take Precautions
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."
The government of Thailand said Tuesday it is helping hospitals prevent trafficking gangs from having access to children. Sri Lanka and India are taking steps to prevent trafficking, and both countries plan to uphold their strict adoption policies.
Indonesia has placed a temporary moratorium on children leaving the country and increased police protection in refugee camps. "This policy is aimed at anticipating the issue of child trafficking as well as illegal adoption of orphans," Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin said.
The challenge is that official records do not exist to keep track of these children. UNICEF is working in Sri Lanka with the National Child Protection Authority and Save the Children to register unaccompanied children and try to identify those separated from surviving family members, Dukess said.
Similarly, World Vision is making sure that children in refugee camps do not leave with adults unless they prove they have legitimate ties to them, Owen said, and some staff members have taken up to 100 children into their homes. The group already works with the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security to prevent child trafficking and prostitution in the region.
"This disaster has just exacerbated the situations that children are facing," he said, adding, "Thailand is one of the largest countries in the world for sex tourism where Westerners, either from North America or Europe, travel with the intent to have sex with children."
In addition, there are reports of children being abandoned by parents who also survived the tsunami. Many children at a center for orphans in southern India still had one parent alive but unable or unwilling to care for them as single parents.
"My father told me to go," a 10-year-old girl named Devinya told The Associated Press while at the Tamil Nadu state's center for children.
Though problems in the region already existed, disasters such as the tsunami create more opportunity for exploitation, Dukess said, adding, "It puts a lot more children at a kind of risk they may not have faced before."
Meanwhile, Kristian's family continues to hope that he will be found soon -- alive. The boy's grandfather is continuing to search for him in Thailand.
"I'm hoping he's been kidnapped as opposed to having been killed initially [by the tsunami]," Daniel Walker said. "Because there's a possibility that he's alive if he's been kidnapped."