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Child prost. claims disputed

UNICEF stands by report alleging border trafficking

By Andrew Satter, The Prague Post (November 6, 2003)


The Czech-German border region is a haven for the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Or it isn't. It all depends on whom you ask.

In late October the German branch of UNICEF, the United Nations organization for children, released a report by the German social-work agency KARO asserting that the borderlands are home to widespread pedophilia and child prostitution. Czech officials said that KARO is home to a self-promoting writer seeking to exploit the issue for publicity purposes.

KARO -- which receives funds from the European Union and subsidies from the German state of Saxony and which has monitored the issue since 1996 -- said it has observed about 500 girls and boys who are in prostitution, most from west, north and south Bohemia and Slovakia. The report, written by KARO social worker Cathrin Schauer, includes shocking accounts of parents-turned-pimps forcing their children into the sex trade to serve legions of German pedophiles flocking across the border.

The report prompted extensive coverage in the German and British media. One psychologist quoted by the BBC characterized the Czech Republic as "Europe's biggest brothel."

Federal officials and leaders in the north Bohemian region that figures most prominently in the report went on the offensive, accusing KARO of exaggeration bordering on fantasy.

Interior Minister Stanislav Gross told the Czech News Agency (CTK) he would review the study but did not expect it to be based on many facts. He subsequently pledged that if German officials can show adequate evidence of a flourishing child-prostitution trade, he will commit special police squads to the problem -- but also that if such evidence materializes KARO could be prosecuted for not reporting criminal activity.

Schauer told CTK that on numerous occasions KARO staff did report to local authorities, even providing suspected molesters' license-plate numbers, but were told to take their complaints to German police.

Officials in the border towns Cheb and As, frequently cited as havens for the sex trade, have also been vocal in their criticism of the report.

"I don't have knowledge about child prostitution in our region, and you can trust me -- I regularly check on my region, even at night hours," said Cheb Mayor Jan Svoboda.

Svoboda said he stopped working with KARO a few years ago because of what he calls similarly unsubstantiated allegations.

As Mayor Dalibor Blazek dismissed the report as a marketing ploy by Schauer, who he said is using UNICEF to raise awareness about her upcoming book on the underage sex trade.

"I believe that this is all motivated by financial gain," Blazek said. "Ms. Schauer published a book and needs to promote it."

Schauer could not be reached by the Post for comment, but fellow KARO social worker Ludmila Irmscher defended her colleague.

"I don't understand why Cathrin Schauer should promote her book -- she doesn't have to do so," Irmscher said. "What we were aiming at by this [report] wasn't to slander the Czech Republic, but to point out to the issue, to say that the problem exists. We wanted to open eyes to the society so that something was done about the problem."

A grim picture

Neither side disputes that prostitutes are in abundant supply near the border, along highways E48 and E49 and in small towns such as Cheb and As. But Czech officials maintain that the trade involves legally consenting adults. Sexual abuse of children, Svoboda said, is a domestic rather than a commercial matter.

"During this year the Cheb district police investigated eight cases of child sexual abuse," he said. "In most of the cases, the offender was the victim's family member."

According to police statistics, only 10 of nearly 2,000 complaints of sexual abuse registered in the area over the last two years involved commercial sexual exploitation, and only two of those involved children.

In the past month police across the country have stepped up anti-prostitution enforcement with sting operations against nightclubs. Operation Fantime, a series of raids in mid-October, produced no reports of child prostitution. More recently, in response to the KARO report, police checked two nightclubs in Horni Dvoriste, south Bohemia, but came up empty.

The report paints a much grimmer picture. Based primarily on KARO members' observations while living and working in Cheb and on 200 interviews of children, adult prostitutes, local authorities and residents of the border region, the report portrays a flourishing system of sexual exploitation of children, replete with accounts of parents offering babies to the occupants of cars and children asking German men, "Can you take me with you for a while?"

Most of the victims come from poor families, often torn by imprisonment, drugs or alcohol. A KARO representative refused to comment further on the children's identities or circumstances.

UNICEF Germany is standing by KARO's work.

"It's a scientifically funded report and the problem is clear," said Helga Kuhn, a spokeswoman for the office. "We edited the book because we thought that this report was important to be received by the public. You can't solve a problem when you ignore it."

Allegations rejected

Government officials aren't the only ones who greeted Schauer's claims skeptically. Lidove noviny reporter Martin Kadnar says he saw another side of Schauer a couple of years ago when he worked for German television newsmagazine Spiegel TV.

Kadnar said he went to Cheb to check out reports of child prostitution and visited Schauer for tips on potential sources. She was unable to provide him with any information, he said, and local prostitutes told him that Schauer had urged them to tell foreign journalists there was rampant pedophilia in the area.

"She is a liar," Kadnar said in an interview. "What she said to the German journalists two years ago proved to be complete nonsense after we worked on the spot."

Kadnar also noted that Schauer is a friend of Christine Rau, wife of German President Johannes Rau. Christine Rau has publicly backed Schauer in the controversy over the social worker's research, a factor Kadnar said could have an impact on KARO's effort to renew its subsidies from the state of Saxony, which expire next year.

Irmscher, Schauer's KARO colleague, rejected allegations that the organization would create false reports so that its workers would remain employed.

"We have so much work, there is no need to make up things so as to keep our jobs," she said.

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