PALITHA SILVA IS 12 years old and poverty-stricken. His father deserted the family, and his mother is a drug addict. His only hope lies in becoming a tricycle driver, and he's saving hard to buy a machine. But unlike Western boys his age, he doesn't earn money by helping neighbours after school and at weekends. It comes from the pockets of paedophiles. Palitha is a child prostitute - there are believed to be more than a million in Asia - and he has already fallen prey to around 30 foreign tourists in the streets of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital. His story is pitiful, but it is one which United Nations investigators hear almost daily as paedophiles increasingly target the region for cheap and easy sex, exchanging information through the Internet on where they can exploit children. They know that though there are laws throughout the region to protect the young from sex predators, officials often turn a blind eye, and even abuse children themselves. 'In many countries of the region, including India and Nepal, abusers and exploiters of children include police officers,' says Laura Skolnik, a Project Expert with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which is based in Bangkok. Skolnik adds that there is also evidence in some countries that police and military have been involved in trafficking as well as being behind prostitution rings. ESCAP's role is to combat 'sexploitation' of children in the region, but it faces a daunting task. According to Skolnik, it has been estimated by one organisation that there are around 400,000 child prostitutes in the cities of India alone. Up to 7,000 poverty-stricken young girls from Nepal are lured into India each year with promises of work. Many are forced into prostitution. Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Thailand have been high on the list of sex tourism destinations for decades, but paedophiles are now targeting poverty-stricken Nepal. The trekking mecca is becoming a new hot spot for child sex as paedophiles take advantage of slack law enforcement in Kathmandu. 'Most of the sex tourism in Nepal seems to be focused in Kathmandu . . . sex tourism is increasing daily in Nepal,' says Skolnik. The organisation has compiled two damning reports on child sex abuse in South Asia and the Greater Mekong Region, covering 11 countries. The studies pinpoint China (Yunnan province), Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Among the findings are: Boys as young as five years are victims of sex exploitation in Sri Lanka, a problem fuelled by sex tourism. Children who are victims of incest or rape often run away from home to enter prostitution willingly. In Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Thailand, 33 to 50 per cent of child prostitutes have become involved with the sex trade after being abused. Palitha (not his real name), who is saving for his tricycle with money earned from foreign paedophiles, was first sexually abused by a Sri Lankan beggar, who then gave the boy money. He was given five rupees (HK$1) by the beggar. Now he earns up to 1,000 rupees and is given food each time he visits a tourist's hotel room. When he has enough money, he says, 'I will buy a three-wheeler and behave well'. Meanwhile, more children are falling victim to paedophiles each day, hoping they can find a way out of poverty. Many will become emotionally disturbed or die from Aids.