Human Trafficking in Haiti

More than aftershocks threaten the children of Haiti.  ABC reports fifteen children have already been documented as missing in the company of persons not their parents.  Children without parents and relatives to protect them in the physical and societal collapse following the earthquake are left more vulnerable than ever to human traffickers looking for a quick profit.  But the threat isn’t new.

As I researched what was being done to protect Haitian children during these perilous weeks immediately following disaster, I uncovered a more disturbing reality that has outlasted the shock of seismic waves.  Child exploitation has long been entrenched in Haiti by prolonged economic desperation and fragile infrastructure.  Let me break down for you what I learned.

Haiti is poor.  Says usaid.gov, “With annual per capita income of less than $400 and an average life expectancy of 53, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Eighty out of 1,000 Haitian children never see their first birthday, and nearly half the population cannot read. As much as 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.”  One solution families are using: the restavek system.

The word restavek is a derivative of the French phrase “to stay with.”  Basically, IOM explains, “parents unable to care for their children send them to relatives or strangers living in urban areas supposedly to receive care and education in exchange for housework. But in reality Restaveks often live in hardship, practically enslaved to their ‘hosts’, seldom attending school.  UNICEF estimates the number of Restaveks in Haiti at about 173,000, three quarters of them are girls.”  The math is overwhelming but not difficult to understand.  No money, no food, no way to protect themselves against exploitation.

Then, you position that intense individual poverty inside an infrastructure that is rife with corruption and suspicion, unable to encourage international investment or maintain domestic resources.  Drought in the north of the country hasn’t helped the situation either, and Haiti continues its tailspin—a climate ripe for abuse and exploitation of every kind.

Besides the suspect Restavek system, organized traffickers have taken advantage of proximity to the Dominican Republic, whose thriving tourism and sugarcane industries can be harnessed for profits from sexual and labor exploitation.  According to IOM and UNICEF, in 2002, over 2,000 children were trafficked from Haiti into the Dominican Republic.  Important note: this figure does not reflect domestic trafficking.  Additionally, these trafficking rings have been tied to international adoption markets.

But the aftermath of disaster raises the stakes for both ill and good.  International relief pouring into Haiti after their disaster could go beyond the immediate rescue and reconstruction of the devastated infrastructure and make headway into the established problem of human trafficking.

Global Centurion, an organization committed to working with non-profit as well as governmental organizations to preempt human trafficking, has put together a strategy for protecting the children waiting for help in the rubble.  Firstly, educating government and aid workers about the very real threat of trafficking already established in Haiti could help forestall opportunistic kidnappings.  Secondly, efforts to identify and register children in aid camps could facilitate family reunions and prevent illegal adoptions.  To get involved in supporting Global Centurion, IOM, and UNICEF, please see the links and resources below.

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