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At a glance: Haiti

Rebuilding childhood in Haiti

Child protection after the earthquake

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0190/Noorani
A girl looks out from between the tarpaulin sheets of the tent where she is living in Nan Charles camp in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. An estimated 9,500 people who have been displaced by the earthquake are living in the makeshift settlement.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 16 February 2010 – An estimated 1.26 million children – approximately 700,000 of them school-aged – have been directly affected by the earthquake in Haiti. They urgently need support and assistance to rebuild their lives.

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Given this reality, the last thing UNICEF Chief of Child Protection Susan Bissell expected to hear on a recent mission to the quake zone was the sound of children’s laughter. But laughter is just what Ms. Bissell heard as she approached an interim care centre that UNICEF and its partners have set up in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, for children separated from their parents by the earthquake.

Normalcy in the aftermath
“Children were playing games outside in the compound,” said Ms. Bissell, who was in Haiti from 31 January through 4 February.

In the sweltering afternoon heat, “boys were kicking around a red plastic ball. Some girls were playing a funny game with string. There were sounds of laughter – of children playing together,” she added.

Located behind a gate that is guarded for the children’s protection, the centre serves as a temporary shelter for earthquake survivors ranging from 7 to 15 years of age. It consists of three large tents and an enclosed structure, and is staffed by professionals trained to meet the needs of children who are distressed in the earthquake’s aftermath.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0194/Noorani
A baby lies sleeping in the entrance to a tent in Nan Charles camp for displaced survivors of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Working to reunite families
While the children at the centre appear unharmed and well cared for, the challenge now is to locate those who are still fending for themselves on the streets and living in temporary communities.

“There are still many unaccompanied children who are in the company of other adults and children, and are therefore vulnerable,” said Ms. Bissell. UNICEF and its partners are working to identify these children and direct them to the interim care centre, where they can be safe from exploitation, abuse and trafficking while every effort is made to reunite them with their surviving family members.

“We have specialists on the ground who know how to trace families and reunite separated relatives,” Ms. Bissell said, noting that such reunions have already begun.

She described one little girl in interim care who is eagerly waiting to be reunited with her parents. “She is certain her parents are alive, but due to the emotional distress she has suffered, she has forgotten her address,” said Ms. Bissell. UNICEF and partners have made repeated attempts to find the location where the girl believes she lives, and the search for her family continues.

Guidelines for alternative care
While the interim care centre is providing physical and emotional support – which is vital to the well-being of children separated from their parents in emergencies like the earthquake in Haiti – it is, by nature, a temporary measure. UNICEF is working with Haiti’s social welfare agency to establish an alternative care arrangement for vulnerable children.

The country has a number of residential care centres, the majority of which are run privately or by faith-based organizations. However, these facilities remain unregulated. In the absence of legal standards, the care is often wanting.

Ms. Bissell suggested that now would be a good time for Haiti to put into practice the alternative care guidelines adopted by the United Nations in November 2009, in connection with the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The guidelines aim to ensure that children are not placed in alternative care unnecessarily and, where out-of-home care is provided, that it responds to the child's rights, needs and best interests.

Meanwhile at the interim care centre in Port-au-Prince, dozens of children play, eat, sleep and receive the psycho-social counseling they need. There is also a makeshift classroom with benches to resume their education – a process that can provide children with a sense of safety and normalcy in times of crisis.




12 February 2010: UNICEF Chief of Child Protection Susan Bissell discusses priorities for keeping children safe in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.
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