Child Trafficking A Growing Concern In Haiti

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Poor families in Haiti have always been desperate to find better lives for their children; in some cases, that has meant giving them away. Now, with 10 Americans accused of trying to exit the country with thirty-three children, officials worry that child traffickers may take advantage of the chaotic, post-earthquake environment.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We turn now to Haiti, where poor mothers have always been desperate to find ways to give their children a better life. In some cases, that means giving them away. However, the arrest of 10 American Baptists has alarmed some groups working with children. These Americans are accused of trying to take 33 Haitian children out of the country. Some officials fear child traffickers may be taking advantage of the chaotic environment following the earthquake.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from the capital, Port-au-Prince.

JUAN FORERO: The Plaza San Pierre(ph) here has always been full of children playing.

(Soundbite of children speaking foreign language)

FORERO: But not like this. In this tent village with hundreds of families, hungry, dirty, forced to relieve themselves in public, waiting for deliverance. Anniye Cheri(ph) has five children and she says, if she could, she would give them up for adoption. Standing next to her is her youngest, aged two, a boy suffering from a serious skin infection.

Ms. ANNIYE CHERI: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She says she lost her house, her children are miserable and she wants them to have a better life, like countless Haitian parents.

Relief agency officials say it's not uncommon in Haiti for parents to abandon children or hand them over to a slew of orphanages, some of which are fly-by-night operations. That's helped spawn the trafficking of 2,000 children a year, some of whom are sexually exploited or put to work as servants.

But with the earthquake, UNICEF's Rashawn Cadivi(ph) says the problem is worse.

Ms. RASHAWN CADIVI (UNICEF): Lot of children have become unaccompanied, they have lost touch with family members, they have lost their homes, there is no school, so a lot of them obviously becomes victims for a lot of people who want to take advantage of them.

FORERO: At the Children of Mary Mother of The Divine Mercy, a spacious orphanage on a hill, children sing.

(Soundbite of children singing)

FORERO: Here, 24 children enjoy hot, healthy meals and a safe home, unlike hundreds of thousands of Haiti, many of them newly orphaned, or simply separated from their parents. Albet Silvera(ph) is the director, and she says families have come by to give away their children, but she says she has no more space.

Ms. ALBET SILVERA (Director, Children of Mary Mother of the Divine Mercy): They are looking for a better place for their children, especially now that they have lost everything. Because if not, those children will die, because they have no way to feed them.

FORERO: Her orphanage is registered with the government. Others aren't and Silvera worries that those may traffic in children.

Ms. SILVERA: You never know if some of those children are being taken for prostitution or for their organs. We have to watch out for that and for many other things. We never know.

FORERO: The government's social service agency says it's inspecting orphanages and relief agencies are helping President Rene Preval's government set up so-called children's brigades, special units designed to stop the smuggling of children at the border.

The government did stop a group of Baptist church workers as they tried to go into the Dominican Republic with nearly three dozen children - kids they said they were trying to rescue. But what the state can't do is create the kind of environment where parents wouldn't view giving away their children as an option.

Ms. ISLAND NORMILLE(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Island Normille says she has four kids and gave three away before the quake. One is at an orphanage; two others, handed five years ago, are somewhere overseas, she says.

Ms. NORMILLE: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She says some people blame her for what she did, but she says she simply couldn't feed or clothe them. She decided giving them away would give them a better life.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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