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By Brett Popplewell
January 30, 2010 / thestar.com
PORT-AU-PRINCE–Kidnapped children. Multiple rapes. Gang violence. A burgeoning black market. And the unknown whereabouts of 4,000 criminals. These are but a few of the problems overwhelming police and peacekeepers tasked with maintaining order in a post-apocalyptic Haiti.
On Wednesday, the Star watched as a hungry mob turned violent when the World Food Program tried to dole out 1,266 bags of rice to the masses. Friday, the Star revisited the site and found some of those bags being sold at a marked up value of $40 a bag.
But of all illegal activities, the reported kidnappings of children, and the related fears they could be trafficked into the sex trade or sold into domestic servitude and international adoptions, is the only criminal activity that cannot be confirmed. And yet it remains of principal concern to aid workers here and abroad.
Kent Page, of the United Nations Children's Fund mission in Haiti, says his organization has received multiple reports that children may be disappearing from hospitals and makeshift tent cities across the capital. Haitian and UN police are investigating the allegations but have not been able to confirm the reports.
"The chaotic situation in Port-au-Prince means there are many unaccompanied children in makeshift camps or on the street," says Page.
"They are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, sexual violence, abuse and possibly illegal trafficking."
With would-be parents around the world lining up to adopt Haiti's many orphans, the remnants of the Haitian government have tightened the rules surrounding the adoption process. Any child heading out of the country must first be equipped with papers bearing the president's signature to legitimize the adoption.
U.S. Homeland Security officers, operating at the airport in Port-au-Prince, say they are diligently ensuring that all children bound for America have the appropriate paperwork whether they are orphans or not.
Orphans bound for Canada and any other nation must first be processed by the destination country's embassy, which is responsible for ensuring the child is either a legal orphan or is accompanied by a legal guardian.
Gabrielle Baptiste, supervisor of immigration at Haiti's Toussaint L'Ouverture Airport, says the stringent policies make it hard for anyone to traffic a child through the airport.
But that might not be the problem.
A more plausible scenario, according to Baptiste, is that children may be exiting the country by car through Haiti's 360-kilometre border with the Dominican Republic where they could be more easily equipped with falsified papers and sold to the highest bidder.
The U.S. State Department has warned that children, orphaned or separated from their parents, could fall victim to pedophiles.
UNICEF says the thousands of unaccompanied children on the streets of Port-au-Prince are the most vulnerable, especially young girls who may be sold into the sex trade or domestic servitude.
"People involved in illegal trafficking kids aren't amateurs," says Page. "These are organized networks. They know what they are doing."
UNICEF won't comment on how much a child might be worth on the black market.
However, the sale of other black market commodities, like UN food rations, are more easily spotted in the many open street markets.
"If we catch someone selling rice we will arrest them and consider holding them for 15 to 30 days," said Josseline Colimon-Féthière, Haiti's minister of commerce.
Residents here say it's inevitable that UN food rations will be resold because people need money as well as food. They say the government has no way to police the trade because all a vendor would have to do to avoid being caught is place the UN rations in a different bag before selling it at market.
Organized and petty crimes have long been a part of Haitian life. According to the UN, crime here is no more prevalent now than it was before the Jan. 12 earthquake.
However, Haiti's national police chief, Mario Andresol, says policing the city's many refugee camps has become a major problem. Police say bandits have been preying on the thousands of homeless. Numerous assaults, robberies and the harassing and raping of young women and girls have been reported.
Police suspect many of the incidents may be committed by the 4,000 criminals who escaped from Port-au-Prince's main prison the night of the earthquake, the majority of whom have yet to be re-apprehended.
Despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and police in Port-au-Prince, the streets of Cité Soleil, a known gang haven and arguably the most dangerous slum in the Western Hemisphere, remain dangerous for foreigners and Haitians alike. Multiple attempts by the UN to deliver food to the area have met with failure.
On Thursday, UN police withdrew their escort of food trucks after they were shot at by a hungry crowd. The dangers involved with delivering food to the area have led the UN to adopt the strategy of entering Cité Soleil under cover of night with 100 peacekeepers who drop the food on the streets and then depart into the darkness before residents realize they were ever there.