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Field Diary 2: Supplies and protection for unaccompanied children in Haiti

By Tamar Hahn*

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 19 January 2010 – One week has gone by since an earthquake turned what was already a desperately poor part of the world into a full-fledged humanitarian emergency. The race against time to bring relief to the people of Haiti continues.

Supplies are arriving daily by land and by air, and distribution of safe water, food, hygiene kits and other life-saving provisions has greatly improved. Still, every day brings new challenges.

Hundreds if not thousands of people are leaving Port-au-Prince, their belongings tied up in bundles or squeezed into suitcases that they carry on their heads as they make their way to the countryside. But thousands still crowd together at camps set up spontaneously around the capital in squares and schools, and even on a golf course.

Enormous resilience

These camps have become microcosms of survival. In one of them, a man has brought a generator that he uses to charge hundreds of cell phones. Meanwhile, women cook whatever food they manage to forage over open fires. Some camps have even set up committees to coordinate their needs.

Although looting and violence is taking place in some areas, what I have mostly witnessed is enormous resilience on the part of people here. 
UNICEF and its partners overcame fuel shortages to dispatch 140 tanker trucks that delivered water to over 140,000 people today. Supplies were also delivered to an orphanage where about 40 children are living and 50 more are expected to arrive shortly.

Also today, we went out to try to ascertain the situation of separated and unaccompanied minors. It is a time-consuming task – just getting around town takes hours – but a clearer picture of the situation is emerging, and UNICEF is taking action to provide a solution.

About 900 of these children, who have found themselves alone in the midst of this emergency, will be taken into interim centres set up by UNICEF to house, feed and care for them.

A close eye on children

My first stop was the tent hospital where, late last week, I first met two unaccompanied children – seven-year-old Sean and two-year-old ‘Baby Girl’ (no one knows her real name). This time, I went there again with UNICEF Regional Child Protection Adviser Nadine Perrault to take these children and two others – Sandie, 9, and Medoshe, 6 – to one of the centres.

But doctors advised us that Sean and Medoshe were not ready to leave; their wounds still not healed and they were at risk of infection. Sean and Sandie have become fast friends, and a woman whose 15-year-old son is also in the hospital has become Baby Girl’s surrogate mother.
We felt that it would be best to take all of the children together. So for the next couple of days, they will all be together at the far end of the tent, right by the resting space for the doctors and nurses. This will enable the medical personnel to keep a close eye on them, as several people have attempted to take children out of the country.

Illegal adoption was an issue of concern before the earthquake. Amidst the chaos that followed it has become a concern for Haitian authorities who fear children may be taken out of the country without proper legal procedures being followed.

While adoption can be a viable option for many children who have lost their parents, it is reasonable to think that many people are still out there looking for their children or the children of their relatives. To prevent the illegal departure of many children UNICEF is deploying two specialized staff to control documentation at the airport.

‘I just want to go home’

Another child, Marie-Yolaine, 9, arrived at the hospital yesterday with a broken arm. She is a good example of why we need to do what is best for children who are without parental care in Haiti. 
Marie-Yolaine is a ‘restavek’, one of the almost Haitian 200,000 children who were given away by impoverished parents to relatives or to unknown families in hopes that they would be provided with a better life. The reality is that these children are forced to work as domestic servants, kept out of school and subjected to violence and abuse.

When the earthquake struck last week, Marie-Yolaine was out fetching water. When a falling slab of concrete broke her arm, the family with whom she was staying brought her to the hospital and left her there on her own. Now all she wants is for us to take her back to the village of Les Cayes in the south of the country, where she was born.

“My mother is dead, but I think my father is still alive,” she says. “If you take me there, I could recognize my house. I just want to go home.”

* UNICEF Regional Communication Specialist Tamar Hahn has been serving as the agency’s chief spokesperson in the Haitian earthquake zone.

For more information
Tamar Hahn, thahan@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean

UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.



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