By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal banned children from traveling without parents or approved guardians on Tuesday in an unprecedented move to deter human traffickers who authorities fear are targeting vulnerable families after last month's devastating earthquake.
Hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes in Nepal after two large earthquakes struck on April 25 and May 12, killing more than 8,600 people and raising concerns among rights groups that trafficking rings in the region are taking advantage of the chaos.
Children under 16 would not be permitted to travel outside their home district without a parent or another adult approved by the district's Child Welfare Board, a senior official said.
"If strangers are found traveling with children they will be under the watch of police," said Radhika Aryal of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare in the capital Kathmandu.
"All district officials and police units across the country have been asked to remain on high alert on this."
International adoption of children from Nepal would also not be permitted for the next three months, said Kiran Rupakheti, another official of the ministry.
The cautionary measures come one week after authorities found dozens of children from earthquake-struck areas traveling with strangers under suspicious circumstances, officials said.
Tarak Dhital of the government's Central Child Welfare Board said 64 children from Dolakha and Dhading districts, both of which were devastated by the earthquakes, were now under the care of a registered children's home.
Police arrested two Indian and three Nepali adults who were traveling with 11 of the children, between 10 and 12 years old, from Dolakha to Kathmandu without the required papers, police said.
"We are investigating if this is a case of trafficking," police official Dan Bahadur Karki said.
Reports of suspected trafficking since the quakes have so far been limited, considering the scale of destruction and Nepal's long-running struggle to reign in human traffickers operating in its borders.
Thousands of Nepali children and women are trafficked into India every year to work in brothels and as child laborers, activists say.
But child rights activists warn the situation may worsen as traffickers target newly vulnerable children and families.
"After the earthquake, traffickers' groups could become very active targeting parents who have lost their homes to send their children with them promising education or a better life," said Krishna Thapa of Voice of Children, a rights group.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Krista Mahr)