Island of Lost Children

Human traffickers find easy prey amid the rubble of Haiti

In Haiti’s unstable post-quake atmosphere, at least one industry is poised to flourish. For those who buy and sell children for sex and cheap labor, Haiti is ripe with opportunity.

When the earthquake struck the impoverished island country last Tuesday afternoon, human traffickers suddenly gained access to a new population of displaced children. With parents dead, government offices demolished, and international aid organizations struggling to meet life-or-death demands, these kidnappers are in a unique position to snatch children with very little interference.

In today’s world, the twin causes of human slavery—poverty and vulnerability—increase exponentially after natural disasters. When the tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, trafficking gangs moved quickly, seizing children and selling them as prostitutes in nearby Malaysia and Jakarta. In 2008, after floods devastated the Indian state of Bihar, groups of children were lured out of relief camps and sold to brothels across the nation.

I’ve seen many such stories up close. For the past three years, I’ve worked in India for International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights agency with twelve offices around the world. Rescuing victims of slavery and sexual exploitation are our specialties, and natural disasters unfailingly bring us new business. One of my first cases dealt with a widowed mother and her six children who had been trafficked after a drought destroyed their livelihood. A local kiln owner, who was in the business of offering good jobs to drought-affected villagers, had approached them with an opportunity. The desperate widow took the bait and found herself and her children forced into slavery at a brick kiln with no hope of escape. The widow was subjected to violent physical abuse and raped repeatedly by the owner and his cronies.

In Haiti, as in India, human trafficking is a problem at the best of times. Even without the pandemonium unleashed by a 7.0 earthquake, an estimated quarter-million Haitian children are trafficked within the country each year. These slaves, known as restavecs, are typically sold or given away to new families by their own impoverished parents. Physical and sexual abuse is common for restavecs. Many owners use the girls as in-house prostitutes, sending them to live on the street if they become pregnant.

Not all of these trafficked children end up as domestic slaves within Haiti—plenty of others are promised work in the Dominican Republic but are instead sold to work in agricultural fields or brothels across the border. Poor children who escape a life in bondage most often end up in street gangs; if they are fortunate, they may be accepted into overcrowded orphanages.

In some cases, countries with trafficking problems have been able to rally around their children after natural disasters. After the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, an article from The Guardian reported stories of mysterious “relatives” showing up to take children from their hospital beds—a friendly male stranger, a never-before-seen aunt in an orange shawl. Doctors and medical staff knew exactly what these adults were after: earlier that same year, 400 Pakistani minors had been rescued from the United Arab Emirates, where they’d been enslaved as camel jockeys during the racing season. The hospital protected its young patients, refusing to turn them over to any adult without legal documentation. After several thwarted kidnapping attempts, The Guardian reported, a policewoman was guarding the doors of Islamabad’s largest hospital and its 960 hospital beds were under constant supervision.

Such a concerted effort appears unlikely, if not impossible, in Haiti today. Keeping an eye out for suspicious strangers would seem to be the least of the nation’s problems. With most of Haiti’s hospitals reduced to piles of rubble, aid groups like Doctors Without Borders are struggling to set up inflatable care centers in parking lots. Prisoners are escaping from their destroyed cells, and the riots surrounding food trucks have stretched police forces to their limits.

Meanwhile, an entirely new chunk of Haiti’s population has become homeless over night. Even with aid pouring in from around the world, essential resources like food and medicine are enormously scarce on the streets of Haiti. But for predators looking for boys and girls to sell for labor and sex, Haiti is the right place to be.