By Wafa Bennani
CASABLANCA, Morocco - As night empties the streets around Morocco's main port of Casablanca, groups of young boys sleep on fishing nets, on cartons in the wholesale market or in doorways.
And in what children's association president Najat M'jid calls Morocco's...growing sex trade, six or seven young girls share small rooms in the teeming city, waiting for ``clients.''
Suspicious, afraid and often deeply ashamed, the children aged between 12 and 18 come from families with difficult backgrounds -- usually divorced parents with many children.
``It was difficult to make them trust us, they told us six or seven different stories before they came to the truth,'' M'jid, a paediatrician and head of the Association Bayti (My Home), said.
``About 1,000 children live in the streets of Casablanca alone,'' she said.
The 36-year-old doctor said prostitution and delinquency threatened an increasing number of homeless children.
That threat was indirectly confirmed earlier this year in an official report drawn up by Morocco with the United Nations.
``Certain disadvantaged, semi-urban zones have many families whose social and health situation is sufficiently critical to favour the phenomenon of street children,'' the report said.
It added...while sexually transmitted diseases were still limited, the rate of infection with the virus causing the incurable disease AIDS was a cause of concern.
It was not possible to get other official comment.
M'jid said the children did not seem aware of the danger of AIDS and almost never used condoms: ``They think AIDS can be cured like any other illness, by antibiotics.''
She said...some 48 percent of the street boys known to her said they had been sexually abused -- often by the eldest of their group, or by tramps or men working as ``guards'' for cars left in the streets or in parking garages.
In return, the guards let them sleep nearby.
Moroccan law allows for the prosecution of people having sex with children, but shame and the fear of not being believed deters most of the youngsters from complaining when they are first raped or abused, the doctor said.
From that first sexual experience, it is a small step to resort to prostitution to earn their living and, for many, to pay for a prevalent habit of glue-sniffing.
Some of the boys...work helping dockers carry crates, or as shoe polishers near train stations, or they simply beg.
Anything to pay for their glue, which costs around 20 dirhams ($2.30).
M'jid said boys and girls working as prostitutes and picked up by Moroccan men are paid between five dirhams (58 cents) and 300 dirhams ($35).
...the children told her there is also a foreign ``trade,'' with Gulf Arabs or Westerners paying between 1,000 ($115) and 1,500 dirhams ($172).
She believes...foreigners seeking sex are more widespread in the ancient city of Marrakesh, whose ochre-coloured buildings, palm trees, monuments and horse-pulled mini-carriages make it a favoured tourist venue.
``Young boys are particularly appreciated by foreigners who, once they spot them, clean them, dress them correctly and usually keep them for the rest of their stay,'' she said.
The young girls are often vaguely organised by an older one, who offers them accommodation and then acts as a pimp for her six or seven ``lodgers'' in return for a small amount of money to introduce new customers.
The Bayti movement, funded by various organisations and embassies, tries to reunite the children with their families, or get them back to school or professional training.
It is a tough job. M'jid's group uses psychologists and educational experts to try to reach the children. It has sports and educational workshops, with just two conditions on attendance -- no glue-sniffing, and no quarrelling.
For the future, M'jid said the only way of curbing the rising trend was to create a centre in each area so children could have a place to discuss their problems.
``Otherwise we'll soon have to face a situation like the one in Brazil.''