Haitian Quake Orphans: Tens of Thousands New Child Slaves?

03/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are reports that the earthquake in Haiti created tens of thousands of orphaned children. Some anti-slavery advocates believe that the new orphans will end up as child slaves, compounding an already complex situation in Haiti where, before the quake, there were already an estimated 300,000 children, known as restavecs, in forced domestic labor in Haiti.

More than 200 million children in the world today are involved in child labour, doing work that is damaging to his or her mental, physical and emotional development. Children work because their survival and that of their families depend on it. Child labour persists even where it has been declared illegal, and is frequently surrounded by a wall of silence, indifference, and apathy. But that wall is beginning to crumble. While the total elimination of child labour is a long-term goal in many countries, certain forms of child labour must be confronted immediately. Nearly three-quarters of working children are engaged in the worst forms of child labour, including trafficking, armed conflict, slavery, sexual exploitation and hazardous work. The effective abolition of child labour is one of the most urgent challenges of our time.

(International Labor Organization ("ILO") ).

It is early to speculate on the number of orphaned children, stated Christopher de Bono, of UNICEF's media office. Haiti is still in emergency mode, said Mr. de Bono, on January 26, 2010, and food, water, and medical care are the priorities for the Haitian people. Mr. de Bono acknowledged, however, that the issue of human traffickers who prey upon orphaned children is a concern. In a press note issued a day after my conversation with Mr. de Bono, UNICEF announced that "assistance to unaccompanied children, who have lost or became separated from their families, is a focus of UNICEF's Haitian humanitarian operations."

UNICEF and partners...have also begun registering unaccompanied children found in the streets of Port au Prince. A programme will then begin to trace the families of these children, if they exist.

Unaccompanied children are especially vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and exploitation, including trafficking....

To understand why what happens to orphaned Haitian children is an important question one must know the background of child slavery in Haiti. The ILO states that in Haiti poor families who live in rural areas frequently send their children to work as domestic servants with families in the urban zones, theoretically in exchange for food, shelter, and education. According to the Jean R. Cadet Restavek Foundation, however, the reality is that those children are enslaved, dressed in rags, and forced to sleep on the floor and they endure beatings and other violence.

Advocates from anti-slavery non-governmental organizations ("NGOs") believe that preventing the enslavement and trafficking of the newly-orphaned Haitian children is as much an emergency as food, water, shelter, and medical care. In a radio interview, Holly Burkhalter, at the International Justice Mission ("IJM"), a NGO, said that human traffickers, pimps, pedophiles, and all those who exploit the most vulnerable, especially children, are drawn to places with the least effective law enforcement, as in Haiti, "where the rule of law has always been shaky." Burkhalter believes in a suspension of any children leaving the country and that there should be a way of reporting suspicious activity regarding the trafficking and enslavement of children.

To see why preventing Haitian children from being trafficked into or back into slavery, within or outside their country, is as important as providing them with food, water, medical care, and shelter, let us listen to Jacmal, who was rescued from the restavec slavery system:

I was five years old when the neighbor took me in
I had to do all the work in the house
I had to got and get water even though I was so young I couldn't do anything really but they decided that I should be the one to do the work
I had to sweep the whole house and I had to do all the dishes
They showed me how to cook food but it was my own food that I cooked because women made food for themselves they didn't give me any of it
I was the one that went to bed the latest and I was the one and got up first - as soon as it was four o'clock I had to be on my feet to go and sweep the kitchen until light the fire and wash all the dishes and put the water on for coffee
When they would make their coffee they said I couldn't do it because I wasn't clean enough to do it
Then they would make coffee but they wouldn't give me any they would just drink it with their own children
Then they would tell me that I had to go behind the Bedfruit tree to make my own food. Sometimes the children of the house would hit me on my head even though I didn't do anything And sometimes the children would set it up so that one would take the money of the other and they would say that I was the one that took it.
All the children in this neighborhood were in school,
There were four of them but she said she wasn't going to put me in school because I was just an animal with out any family.

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