UNICEF Warns Child Trafficking Could Emerge as a Serious Issue in Haiti

The devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12th has led to a series of efforts to speed the adoption process for orphans in Haiti.  Some aid groups, however, have cautioned that a hasty process may not be in the best interests of the children and could open the door to child trafficking networks.

One issue revolves around knowing who is truly an orphan and who is not.  Save the Children Chief Executive, Jasmine Whitbread, said that family members may still be alive and taking children out of the country would "permanently separate thousands of children from their families - a separation that would compound the acute trauma they are already suffering".  Additionally, UNICEF spokesman, Christopher de Bono stated that it is not uncommon for Haitian parents to put their children in orphanages temporarily and, thus, finding out which children are in fact orphans requires great attention to detail and documents.

A second concern voiced by aid agencies is that moving children around without procedure in a time of national emergency can open the door to fraud and abuse, as trafficking networks take advantage of the weakness of local authorities and relief coordination. The UN's Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement saying that "[e]nslavement of children and trafficking were . existing problems, and could easily emerge as serious issues over the coming weeks and months."

Fears were raised as United Nations officials confirmed that around 15 children disappeared from a hospital in Haiti.  UNICEF adviser Jean Luc Legrand said the situation was similar to the aftermath of the tsunami in Asia five years ago: "traffickers fish in pools of vulnerability. We know from past experience that trafficking happens in the chaos that usually follows emergencies."

UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman released the following statement:

"We are extremely concerned about the situation of children in Haiti, many of whom have become separated from their families and caregivers. These children face increased risks of malnutrition and disease, trafficking, sexual exploitation and serious emotional trauma. The race to provide them with life-saving emergency food and medicine, safe shelter, protection, and care is underway. Every effort will be made to reunite children with their families. Only if that proves impossible, and after proper screening has been carried out, should permanent alternatives like adoption be considered by the relevant authorities.  Screening for international adoption for some Haitian children had been completed prior to the earthquake. Where this is the case, there are clear benefits to speeding up their travel to their new homes."

Save the Children, World Vision and a unit of the British Red Cross called for an immediate halt to any new adoptions of Haitian children. World Vision Chief Executive Justin Byworth said "new unregulated adoptions could open the door to child traffickers" and that aid groups said that the focus must initially be on tracing any family members that children may still have.  However, other groups are pressing for more urgent action.  Margaret Fleming of Adoption-Link, said it was "ludicrous" to expect groups to refrain from taking action to immediately rescue those in need.

Most aid groups agree that adoptions that were already in progress before the January 12 earthquakes should go ahead, as long as the legal documents which meet Haitian and international law are in place.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "personally directing that we do everything we can to try to find and identify those children who are already adoptable... and to try to expedite all the paperwork... to get them to their new home". Several other countries are also fast-tracking adoption procedures which were already under way including Canada, France, the Netherlands and Spain.

UNICEF and other groups have tried to look for alternatives to immediate international adoption, such as establishing safe zones to register unaccompanied children. The UN mission in Haiti has stepped up surveillance of roads and the border with the Dominican Republic. A joint Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) protection team have arrived in Haiti and will join up with the remaining members of the MINUSTAH team to work with organizations in Haiti. It is the first time these two UN organizations have fielded a joint protection team of this type during a crisis.

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