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Child Slavery in Haiti

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Child Slavery in Haiti
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In November 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, recognizing "that in all countries in the world, there are children living in exceptionally difficult conditions, and that such children need special consideration." Then in May 2000, the General Assembly adopted an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

In 1990, the UN Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography with a mandate to investigate the problem and submit reports to the General Assembly.

Today, Gulnara Shahinian holds the post, and on June 10, 2009 addressed Haiti's Restaveks, a century-old system under which impoverished families, mostly rural and unable to adequately provide for their children, send them to live with wealthier or less poor ones in return for food, shelter, education, and a better life in return for tasks performed as servants - de facto slaves subjected to verbal and physical abuse.

Some as young as three are beaten, forced to do anything asked, request nothing, speak only when spoken to, display no emotion, and receive none of the benefits parents expected, just exploitation and mistreatment that's often severe. Too often it's from relatives as poor families often send their children to live with those better able to provide care, yet they seldom do.

Haiti's poor also use them to help with domestic and other chores, and some work for homeless families under the worst of conditions, including nothing to eat for days, harder work, greater abuse, at times whippings leaving scars, getting attacked by rats in their sleep or street predators any time, and being easy prey for kidnappers who seize them for prostitution or forced labor, internally or abroad.

On July 10, 2009, Shahinian released a report titled, "Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the Right to Development" covering contemporary forms of slavery that affect adults and children.

She called it a global issue in traditional and emerging forms that haven't been sufficiently addressed. She also found that where laws on forced labor exist, enforcement is limited, and "very few policies and programmes....address bonded labour." They should given its scale worldwide, affecting an estimated 27 million people conservatively and very likely many more as much of the problem is unreported.

In March 2009, this writer addressed it in an article titled, "Modern Slavery in America." It's disturbing and pervasive despite US laws prohibiting all forms of human trafficking through statutes created or strengthened by the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) providing for imprisonment for up to 20 years or longer as well as other penalties. Other laws were also enacted, including the 2003 Protect Act to end child exploitation.

Yet slavery exists in different forms, affecting farm workers, domestic help, factory and other sweatshop labor, restaurant and hotel work, guest workers on US military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and most of all for prostitution and sex services that exploit children as well as adults. 

The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as follows:

"....all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which said person has not offered himself (or herself) voluntarily."

Forced child labor is:

"(a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

(b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

(c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties; (and)

(d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children."

The Free the Slaves.net's definition is being "forced to work without pay under threat of violence and unable to walk away."

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

"No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

If sweatshop wage slavery is included, the problem is far greater, affecting many hundreds of millions of exploited workers globally, including a 2004 UNICEF estimate of about 218 million children performing labor (other than domestic), some as young as five, many in forced bondage, the majority doing hazardous work, and governments doing little or nothing to protect them.

On December 29, 1994, Haiti ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under its provisions, authorities issue reports on the problem as required, but little else. Until he was ousted, however, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide addressed it. He created a special Haitian National Police child protection unit, and in 2003, got a new law passed prohibiting child domestic labor, mostly as Restaveks. Other legislation also passed banning trafficking in persons, a longstanding problem affecting adults as well.

Except for measures under Aristide, Haiti did little before or after his tenure to curb the problem, claiming a lack of resources. Instead, it established a hotline for children and others to report abuses, has a minimal staff, gets about 200 requests a year, visits homes for educational purposes, advises violators to stop their practices, occasionally removes abused children, but barely addresses the problem Shahinian called tantamount to slavery and condemned.

After a nine-day visit in early June, she said Haiti's Restavek system:

"deprives children of their family environment and violates their most basis rights such as the rights to education, health and food as well as subjecting them to multiple forms of abuse including economic exploitation, sexual violence and corporal punishment, violating their fundamental right to protection from all forms of violence."

She condemned professional recruiters who exploit children for financial gain and called for establishing a National Commission to eliminate the problem. She recommended registering all of them, providing alternative income generating programs for poor families, compulsory free primary education, and training for government officials to address the issue. Under the current Preval government, practically nothing has been done so far. 

In June 2009, the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report called Haiti a:

"Special Case for the fourth consecutive year as the new government formed in September 2008 has not yet been able to address the significant challenges facing the country, including human trafficking."

Urging its government "to take immediate action to address its serious trafficking-in-persons problems," it was silent about America's role in ousting Aristide and the fascist regime it installed. In collusion with Haitian elites, the result has been rampant oppression, sham elections, destruction of the majority democratic opposition, jails overflowing with political prisoners, and ending the beneficial political, economic and social changes Haitians briefly enjoyed.

Now the State Department calls Haiti a:

"source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Haitian women, men, and children are trafficked into the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, the United States, Europe, Canada, and Jamaica for exploitation in domestic service, agriculture, and construction....Several NGOs noted a sharp increase in the number of Haitian children trafficked for sex and labor to the Dominican Republic and The Bahamas during 2008," the majority being Restaveks, including those trafficked internally.

Dismissed and runaway Restaveks comprise "a significant proportion of the large number of street children, who frequently are forced to work in prostitution or street crime by violent criminal gangs. Women and girls from the Dominican Republic are trafficked into Haiti for commercial sexual exploitation."

Some Haitians in the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas and America become virtual slaves as forced labor on sugar-cane plantations, in agriculture and construction. To a large degree, America bears major responsibility, yet is silent and initiates no change.

The Restavek Foundation

Founder Jean-Robert Cadet was once one himself, "endur(ing) years of physical and emotional abuse as a domestic slave until he received access to education -first in Haiti and later in the United States."

He now addresses the problem on his web site (restavekfreedom.org) and by speaking at colleges and universities throughout America and to government organizations globally. He also uses his foundation to help trapped children, providing them opportunities for education, paying for their tuition, uniforms and books,  feeding them once a day, monitoring their health and well-being, and restoring their dignity.

His mission is to end Haitian child slavery and give hope to those enslaved. The Restavek Foundation "invest(s) in Haiti so that Haiti will allow us to invest in the children" - through a network of over 500 advocates across the country acting as a "voice for the voiceless."

In the aftermath of Haiti's quake, the Foundation is providing food and other essentials to areas not reached by others. They need help and ask for donations on their web site.

Post-Quake Child Trafficking

On February 1, New York Times writer Ginger Thompson headlined, "Case Stokes Haiti's Fear for Children, and Itself," reporting that, on January 29, 10 Americans were detained at the Dominican border for illegally trying to spirit 33 children from the country.

"The 10 Americans, the authorities said, had crossed the line." Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive called them "kidnappers (who) knew what they were doing was wrong." National Judicial Police chief, Frantz Thermilus, said: "What surprises me is that these people would never do something like this in their own country." He's wrong as the US is beset with adult and child trafficking, and the problem is global.

Affiliated with two Idaho-based Baptist churches, the excuse given rings hollow, saying that: "God wanted us to come here to help children, we are convinced of that. Our hearts were in the right place."

They were headed for a Dominican Republic orphanage, existing only on paper, later to be "adopted" by US Evangelical Christian families. When stopped at the border, Haitian agents found them packed inside a bus. None had passports, and no documents authorized their transfer.

SOS Children's Villages ran the Port-au-Prince orphanage where they were temporarily placed. Its regional director, Patricia Vargas, told Agence France Presse that "The majority of these children have families. Some of the older ones said their parents are alive, and some gave an address and phone number." One eight-year child said "I am not an orphan. I still have my parents." The Haitian Social Ministry confirmed that so did others. On January 30, SOS Villages was asked to help under the circumstances.



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