The recent earthquake in Haiti has already destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. But for the countless children left orphaned and isolated by the disaster, the greatest horrors may be yet to come. Wherever there is poverty, there exist the desperation and vulnerability that give rise to human trafficking. In Haiti, with the added chaos of the earthquake, it seems inevitable that traffickers will flourish.
Human traffickers have already made a habit of exploiting natural disasters to boost their business: after the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 and floods in India in 2008, gangs moved fast to seize orphaned children and sell them into prostitution. Now aid agencies are warning that thousands of displaced children in Haiti are at risk. UNICEF has spoken out about the dangers these children face, and the importance of trying to reunite them with their families and carers. But for most people in Haiti, struggling to obtain basic food and shelter, trafficking gangs are the least of their worries, and there is little hope of getting vulnerable children the protection they need.
Yet what is really shocking is that the risk of child trafficking is not simply a new development brought about by the earthquake. It is estimated that almost 250,000 children in Haiti are already living in conditions of slavery. Known as restaveks, they are usually children from extremely poor families who are sent away to work as domestic servants in wealthier homes. Most receive only basic shelter and sustenance in return for their work, and many never leave their conditions of slavery.
Following the earthquake, thousands more children have been displaced and are newly vulnerable to predatory traffickers. Giving them the necessary protection and attempting to reunite them with their families must be a priority in the aftermath of this tragedy. But now that the world’s attention has been turned to this tiny and impoverished country, we can also hope that something will be done to address the problems that existed in Haiti long before that disaster struck, and will continue to exist long after the shock has died away.