Monday, April 05, 2004

Tourist Authority, police target sex tourists: Border guards to leaflet potential child molesters from abroad  

By Jennifer Anne Perez
For The Prague Post
April 1, 2004

Months after an explosive report portrayed Czech border towns as havens for underage sex, the Czech Tourist Authority (CTA) and police have begun a campaign that puts pay-for-sex pedophiles on notice and attempts to steer them toward the country's more wholesome attractions.

Authorities began circulating flyers in late March among tourists crossing the German-Czech border on weekend nights. The flyers warn of a crackdown on the sex trade -- and also promote a positive image of the country.

"The first side of the leaflet warns in German that child prostitution is illegal and that children are forced into it against their will," said Hana Cermakova, a spokesperson with the CTA. "The other side presents the traditional tourist attractions of the Czech Republic. We are responsible for promotion of the Czech Republic as an attractive tourist destination abroad, and we want the Czech Republic to only be perceived as a destination for cultural, educational, sporting or wellness trips. This campaign says, 'We do not want these tourists, the ones who visit the Czech Republic looking for child prostitutes.'"

Since the March 23 campaign launch, border and foreign police have passed out more than a thousand leaflets on Friday and Saturday nights to men passing into the Czech Republic.

Some, including law enforcement officials in the affected areas, say they're skeptical that flyers will do much to stop sex tourists from seeking child prostitutes. Even the border police acknowledge they have few options.

"We have limited formal means in what we can do," said Vlastmil Rehak, second in command at the regional police presidium in the north Bohemian city of Ústi nad Labem. "We can only ask people crossing the border about why they are arriving, and they will say for tourist purposes. And that is it."

The flyer, which also lists the health risks of unprotected sex and has a hotline number for reporting questionable activity, has been handed out to travelers at seven key border checkpoints: Cinovec, Varnsdorf, Vojtanov, As, Hrensko, Petrovice and Hora sv. Sebestiana.

"Our policemen are passing the leaflets to cars when they spot suspicious travelers -- like a lonely guy or a pair of guys crossing the border," said Vlastmil Rehak, second in command at the regional foreign police presidium of Ústi nad Labem. "The foreign police are not in charge -- the issue belongs to the vice squads. Nevertheless, the foreign police are happy to cooperate with the project, even if it only helps one kid."

The debate took center stage in October, when a UNICEF-affiliated social work organization, KARO, released a report that said it had observed 500 child prostitutes. The study said boys and girls in Czech border towns were offered to visiting German pedophiles by parents.

While many lauded the report, others called it an exaggeration, including Cheb Mayor Jan Svoboda, who told The Prague Post he wasn't aware of any child prostitution in his town six miles from the German border.

The issue, epidemic or not, grabbed the attention of European Parliament members in February when, during a foreign relations committee meeting in Brussels, Dutch and German parliamentary members said the Czech Republic needed to do more about the problem. The group vowed to continue talks to develop methods to confront the issue.

The German branch of ECPAT, a children's rights organization that helped assemble KARO's report, attempted a similar leaflet campaign last year, but it wasn't targeted at likely offenders.

"We were interested in getting to the general tourist," said Mechtild Maurer, spokeswoman for the group's Freiberg office. Such travelers, who have concerns for the welfare of children, are "people who weren't interested in having an offender standing next to them in the museums, when they were on their tours."

Although Maurer calls the new campaign a good idea, she said that it's difficult to make progress if the campaign targets the pedophiles themselves.

"Offenders are not open to stopping their behavior because of some awareness material," Maurer says. "Offenders need a higher risk, the risk of getting punished, so legislation has to be improved or law enforcement has to be improved."

- Lenka Ponikelska contributed to this report.

Jennifer Anne Perez can be reached at news@praguepost.com

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