By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, June 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children in the Dominican Republic are preyed upon by foreigners who visit the island to have sex with youngsters but few sex tourists are punished, a United Nations expert said.
Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, the U.N. special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, said the Dominican Republic is a child sex tourism hotspot.
"The people who go there for that purpose know that they can do this in relative impunity. That it's easy to get access to children," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation following her first visit to the Caribbean nation last month.
"Tourists say, 'well it's easy there, why not.'"
Adult prostitution is legal in the Dominican Republic.
But it is illegal to force, deceive or coerce any adult or child into sexual exploitation - also known as human trafficking - and the crime carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years.
In recent years, the government has stepped up efforts to prosecute tourists and Dominicans for child sex exploitation. But convictions remain low.
According to the U.S State Department, government authorities convicted 20 people for human trafficking in 2015.
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The island's palm-fringed white beaches attract about 6 million visitors a year and tourism is an engine of the economy.
The government's target is to reach 10 million visitors by 2022, and with record high tourist numbers more children could fall prey to sexual exploitation, driven by demand from tourists mainly from the United States, Canada and Europe.
"What's really missing is a decisive policy of the government to put this issue of child protection at the core of their tourism strategy," said de Boer-Buquicchio, who will present her recommendations on combating child sex tourism in the country to the U.N. Human Rights Council next year.
"What is really important is that the minister of tourism gets actively involved in this. And that's really the first recommendation."
The Dominican tourism ministry did not respond to requests for an interview.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the Hispaniola island with impoverished Haiti, sees Haitian children crossing the porous border and they are at high risk of being sexually exploited, de Boer-Buquicchio said.
Dominican teenagers, mostly aged 15 to 17, who sell food and souvenirs on the beaches of Boca Chica and Sousa are also at risk.
"On the beach where I was in Sousa it was really striking .. all you could see there were middle-aged men drinking beer or whatever in the afternoon," de Boer-Buquicchio said.
"There were no families, there were no women. It was just these middle-aged men waiting till it gets dark so that they can conduct their dirty business."
Poor children can be pushed into the sex trade by their own families and local pimps, taxi and motorbike taxi drivers are known to bring children to sex tourists.
"I saw it happen with the taxi drivers .. they make money out of it," the U.N. expert said. "It's all relatively easy."
A 2015 report by rights group, International Justice Mission, found that one in four sex workers in the Dominican Republic on street corners, beaches and parks was under 18.
Despite concern in the government and police force about children being sold for sex, there is a lack of funding, training and staff to tackle the crime, de Boer-Buquicchio said.
The hotel industry has signed a code of conduct to prevent adults and children being sexually exploited. At resort receptions it is common to see signs saying: "It is prohibited to take minors into hotel rooms."
But the sexual abuse of children often takes place in private apartments and motels, known as cabanas, where customers can pay for rooms by the hour.
"That's a big problem," de Boer-Buquicchio said. "What I think is necessary for the ministry of tourism to do, is to regulate effectively all commercial activities of the sector."
(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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