SEATTLE — As a result of the earthquake on January 12, 2010, the threats to child wellbeing and safety have increased as Haiti’s most vulnerable demographic has become its most victimized. The destitute children of Haiti are now facing heightened threats of exploitation, abuse and human trafficking. The impact of the earthquake has exacerbated already dire living conditions. However, the advocacy efforts and global response to contest child trafficking in Haiti have been monumental.
The Restavek System
Poverty is one of the main causes of child trafficking in Haiti. Prior to the devastating 2010 earthquake, 80 percent of Haitian families lived below the poverty line and 54 percent lived in abject poverty. The persistently high levels of poverty have incited a severe child protection emergency particularly for orphans and children living in rural areas. The children living in rural areas of Haiti have experienced a systematic deprivation of their basic needs such as shelter, nutrition, health care and access to education. Given the widespread poverty in Haiti, families in rural areas have adopted a system of child labor known as the restavek system to combat these extreme cases of child poverty.
Restavek, which means “to stay with” is a system of unpaid domestic child labor, culturally unique to the nation and has existed since Hait gained independence. Within this system, children from rural areas are sent to live in larger cities like Port Au Prince. In exchange for their household labor, the children expect to receive food, shelter and accessible education.
However, a positive outcome is not always the reality for the hopeful restavek children. Oftentimes, these children are not permitted to contact their parents and are consequently abandoned by their families. Many restavek children have also reported occurrences of physical, sexual and verbal abuse by their host families. The exploitation of children within the restavèk system creates a number of dangerous living conditions one of which is child trafficking in Haiti.
Child Trafficking and Health Risks
In Haiti, a majority of trafficking cases are comprised of approximately 500,000 restavek children living in domestic servitude throughout the nation. The U.S. Department of State has confirmed a definite increase in the number of restavek children trafficked to the Dominican Republic. Child trafficking from Haiti to the Dominican Republic mainly occurs under the conditions of sex trafficking and restavek placement. It is estimated that roughly 2,500 children are trafficked annually from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.
Child trafficking in Haiti poses an array of threats to children’s health, well-being and psychosocial development. In addition, the post-disaster conditions have increased the pervasiveness of adversity and gender-based violence against children. Sex trafficking is a significant health risk for trafficked children, especially girls. These dangerous circumstances put girls at risk for HIV infection, childhood pregnancy, mental illness and sexual violence.
Anti-Trafficking Laws and Global Advocacy
In June 2014, the Government of Haiti established a law that criminalized human trafficking. The legislation established punishments for trafficking-related offenses, this includes incarceration for up to 15 years. However, the Haitian government has not implemented laws to combat child domestic servitude. Therefore, the government has not met the minimum criteria for the sufficient elimination of child trafficking in Haiti.
The international acknowledgment of child trafficking in Haiti has created indignation towards the restavek system and advocacy for the affected children on a global level. UNICEF has assisted the Haitian government to implement child welfare practices and policies that support the reunification of restavek children with their relatives.
In partnership with UNICEF, Save The Children has assisted with the reunification of 337 misplaced children with their families while supporting other children with family-based care alternatives. Another component of the advocacy efforts established by UNICEF is the development of child-friendly areas that offer psychosocial guidance and recreational activities. Over 62,800 children in Haiti are currently benefiting from 225 child-friendly areas.
Child trafficking in Haiti is a perverse reality that must be addressed by prioritizing the plight of the destitute children of this nation. Urgent investigations and prosecution of the individuals responsible for victimizing Haiti’s most vulnerable citizens must transpire. In addition, the Haitian government can benefit from working with international organizations such as UNICEF to implement abiding changes that promote the development of an effective child protection sector.
– Sabia Combrie