Natural disasters, like the January 12th earthquake in Haiti, create unstable conditions that often increase the likelihood of exploitation. Such disasters, said Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, disproportionately impact the most vulnerable sectors of society, making them primary targets for exploitation and enslavement.
The United States continues to work with Haiti with regards to the enslavement of children in domestic servitude, also known as restaveks. Under this system, poor, rural families send their children to cities to live with wealthier families whom they think will provide the children with food, shelter and an education, in exchange for a little bit of work.
The majority of trafficking cases are found among the estimated 225 thousand children enslaved in domestic servitude. Sixty-five percent of the victims are girls between the ages of 6 and 14. They work excessive hours, receive little or no schooling, are unpaid, and are often physically and sexually abused. Haitian labor laws require employers to pay domestic workers over the age of 15, so many are dismissed prior to reaching that age.
Dismissed and runaway children who were enslaved as restaveks make up a significant proportion of the large population of street children in Haiti.
In the wake of Haiti's earthquake, the U.S. recognized the need to do more to protect the most vulnerable in society. Ambassador CdeBaca said counter-trafficking interventions should start immediately as part of the emergency phase of a disaster response. Future international efforts should also focus on supporting the government's efforts in implementing effective anti-trafficking measures.
Interventions should seek to quickly identify, register, and provide interim care for separated and unaccompanied children while family tracing is done. In addition, governments should assess the vulnerabilities that exist and ensure that policies, legislative tools, and social norms are adequate to respond to the tragedy.
And with the United States’ help, interventions are taking place successfully, Mr. CdeBaca said, noting that a five year-old-girl was found by one of the State Department's NGO partners alone along the Ouanaminthe border area. Ambassador Luis CdeBaca said that these workers were able to respond quickly and partner with others to reunite the young girl in the safe hands of her family instead of the hands of the traffickers.
The United States stands ready to support NGOs, to work with the government of Haiti as it moves a new anti-trafficking law through parliament, and to work with Haiti to achieve structures that will fight this heinous practice.