Aid workers say child smuggling rife in Haiti for years

Date: 2010-02-09

 SCOTT HIAASEN

.PORT-AU-PRINCE: In autumn 2008, a pastor travelled through the barren countryside of Haiti asking parents to give him their children. He promised an education and a better life at an orphanage he said was bankrolled by Americans.

Twenty-eight children were sent with the pastor. But his promises proved false: within three months, one child died and two dozen were sick and emaciated when discovered by Haitian police, a UN report said.

Even before the earthquake left as many as 300,000 children homeless, and before the spotlight fell on 10 Idaho missionaries charged with kidnapping, Haiti was a country where children were commonly reduced to a commodity. They were smuggled across the border as cheap labour, peddled for black-market adoptions, abandoned by their parents or forced into servitude, records and interviews show.

Despite the constant urging of human rights organisations, Haiti's government has made little progress in protecting its children from exploitation or neglect, a McClatchy Newspapers investigation found. By its own account, the government inspected only half the country's documented orphanages and no one can say how many orphanages work off the books.

The situation is sure to worsen. Thousands more children were left homeless or lost parents in the quake, while the country's feeble safety net was left in tatters. ''The government must care for the children,'' said Father Luc Jolicoeur, of the Good Shepherd orphanage, in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas. He said no government inspector had ever visited his orphanage, where he fed oatmeal breakfasts to 78 boys on Thursday morning.

Haiti's record before the disaster on January 12 showed just how vulnerable to abuse the country's children have been. In September, US prosecutors charged Douglas Perlitz, a Colorado missionary, with using food and gifts to extract sexual favours from teenagers at an orphanage he ran in northern Haiti. The orphanage was financed with donations from a Connecticut church group. Mr Perlitz has pleaded not guilty.

Two years ago, two Canadian aid workers were convicted in their home country of sexually abusing boys at an orphanage in southern Haiti.

In 2007, the International Organisation for Migration discovered 47 children who were solicited from their parents by the operators of a rogue adoption centre in Port-au-Prince. The same year, Haitian police arrested the operator of an orphanage housing 32 children being offered in black-market adoptions.

Haiti is overwhelmed with children with nowhere to go. Thirty-eight per cent of the population is under 15, nearly double the US rate of 20 per cent.

Nobody knows how many children are living in orphanages or group homes, making the problem hard to measure and harder to trace. UNICEF estimated that 50,000 children lived in orphanages before the quake, but Save the Children puts the figure at 380,000. Now the number of vulnerable children is estimated to be as high as 1 million.

Unaccompanied children now wander the cramped, chaotic squalor of Port-au-Prince's tent camps, seeking food and protection from strangers. ''There are such levels of poverty that a family will put a child in an orphanage just so that they get fed,'' said Melissa Winkler of the International Rescue Committee.

McClatchy Newspapers

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