At a glance: Haiti

Haiti protects its border against post-earthquake child trafficking

By MP Nunan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 15 October 2010 – The inspectors from the Brigade for the Protection of Minors (BPM) work on the edge of a ‘no man’s land’ – about a kilometer of road leading up to a market that sprawls across the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. And that’s what makes their work so vital.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent MP Nunan reports on efforts to prevent the trafficking of children across the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Watch in RealPlayer

 

The BPM inspectors stop every car, truck and van that approaches the border at Malpasse, along the quarry-blue waters of Lake Azuei, about 60 km east of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. They’re looking for children and young people under the age of 18. If either a child or his or her parents are travelling without documentation, the child is not allowed to cross.

The border is open on market days, every Tuesday and Thursday, making the crossing point a virtual riot of cars, trucks and vendors. The traffic stopping at the BPM checkpoint is heavy.

One girl, travelling with an adult man, says she’s 17 and that the man is her uncle. After looking at her identification card, the BPM inspectors let her go with a gentle correction. It turns out she’s 18, and she is therefore allowed to pass. 

Child-trafficking increases

A study conducted by UNICEF several years ago determined that at least 2,000 Haitian children are trafficked to the Dominican Republic annually. Most are believed to end up as unpaid domestic labor, beggars working for organized crime ‘begging cartels’ or in the pornography and sex-trades.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Inspectors from the Brigade for the Protection of Minors speak with occupants of a van that is about to cross the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Since Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake, UNICEF believes, those figures have climbed. Child-traffickers are likely to have used the confusion in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake to prey upon lost or separated children.

“During the emergency, the border was opened – nicely opened – because it was useful for humanitarian reasons,” says UNICEF Representative in Haiti Françoise Gruloons-Ackermans. “But we heard about a lot of movement of children. And among them were probably children who were trafficked.”

Preying on despair

Nine months later, economic pressures faced by families may allow traffickers to convince parents to give their children up for what they think will be a better life.

“There are people out there, these bandits, traffickers – they’re pretty smart to talk about it a different way, and promise something: education, a better life, meals for their kids,” says Marie-Elie Alexis, Border Project Manager with UNICEF partner Heartland Alliance, which helps the police inspectors determine whether a child is travelling with a legal parent or guardian. Too many parents, she adds, “aren’t able to sustain themselves within a community that pushes them to give away their children for a better life, supposedly.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
A young boy at one of the crossing points on the Haitian border.

Back at the border crossing, BPM inspectors hold for questioning a woman travelling with a young girl who is about seven or eight years-old, and a smaller boy, who may be five. No one has documentation. The girl and the woman share a family resemblance, but the girl’s story is confusing. It’s her aunt, she says, with whom she’s travelling because her mother is dead.

A minute later however, the girl says her mother is merely in the hospital. The little boy, who does not share the family resemblance, appears to be ill. Heartland Alliance staffers take the children for some gentle questioning.

Attacking the problem

UNICEF’s work to prevent children from being trafficked extends beyond the visible presence of the BPM in Malpasse and the three other main crossing points with the Dominican Republic.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
A border crossing point between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is jamed with pedestrians and vehicles as inspectors check for trafficked children.

In addition to helping fund and train more BPM inspectors, UNICEF is working to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of Social Affairs. It’s also working with legislators to turn human trafficking legislation into law, which Haiti so far does not have. With partners like Heartland Alliance, child protection officers want to attack the problem at its source – a lack of awareness within Haitian families about the rights of the child.

“Everyone is actually a human being, and kids are human beings, and they should know they have rights, and this is the message we want to send across,” says Ms. Alexis from Heartland Alliance, which also runs awareness-raising campaigns in community center. “We’re working with the Haitian Government to basically explain to families that [children] have rights and cannot be trafficked.”


 

 

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