GENEVA (2 February 2010) – “There is an increased risk of unaccompanied children in Haiti, including orphans and restaveks*, being abducted, enslaved, sold or trafficked, due to increased insecurity in the country,” a group of UN human rights experts warned Tuesday**.
The experts, who are mandated by the Human Rights Council to monitor slavery, sale of children, trafficking and violence against children, stressed that “protection of children must be at the heart of the relief operation in Haiti.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee on the Rights of the Child and Independent Expert on Haiti have also emphasized the critical need to protect children in the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, and in light of the particular dangers posed by thousands of gang-members and other criminals who escaped from prisons damaged by the quake.
“Unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable and it is essential, wherever possible, to register, trace and reunite children with their families,” the UN experts said, adding that “during the evacuation efforts, it is imperative to avoid the unnecessary separation of families which may place children at higher risk, aggravate their trauma and distress and hinder their recovery and reintegration.”
The group praised the UN’s establishment of a ‘Child Protection Sub-Cluster,’ which is geared to safeguard children’s rights and prevent violence, abuse and exploitation, and highlighted the efforts of this body to set-up a rapid registration system for unaccompanied children. “One of their key goals is to register children under five, and older girls, children and youth with mental disabilities or serious injuries, as well as restaveks that have been separated from their ‘employers,’” the UN experts said. “We welcome this vital initiative.”
They also urged the international organizations and governments assisting Haitians “to ensure that the work on child protection remains a priority and continues to be properly funded and coordinated under the umbrella of the United Nations.”
(*) Restavek means “staying with” and refers to the Haitian system under which parents who cannot support their children send them to live with more affluent relatives or strangers from whom they are supposed to receive food, shelter and education in exchange for work. The Restaveksystem is prone to exploitation and sometimes leads to children being kept as virtual slaves.
(**) Ms. Gulnara Shahinian, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery; Ms. Najat M’jid Maalla, Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children; and Ms. Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children