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  USA Caribbean Human Rights Analysis


Child Slavery in Haiti

Posted: 2010-02-07
From: Mathaba
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Mathaba Analyst Stephen Lendman continues to keep a watchful eye on Haiti...


by Stephen Lendman

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.

Its officials accused the Idaho group of taking "children under false pretenses. The allegations have to be thoroughly investigated but the Haitian police consider this incident as organized child trafficking."

Laura Silsby heads the groups as CEO of a Boise-based online shopping web site called personalshopper.com. Last November, it filed papers with Idaho authorities to establish the New Life Children's Refuge, ostensibly as an NGO. As part of their "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission," they plan a Dominican Republic orphanage for up to 200 children, earmarked for US adoptions, conversion to Evangelical Christianity, and apparent extremist indoctrination, given Silsby's admission that Sarah Palin and the Manhattan Initiative are two of her favorites, the latter a right-wing Evangelical group opposed to abortion and gay marriage.

Although one scheme was stopped, UNICEF says, pre and post-quake, documented evidence shows many Haitian child abductions, including from hospitals, orphanages, and the street where so many are vulnerable.

The agency explained that pre-quake, Haiti had about 380,000 orphaned children. The number now is incalculable, but the message is clear. Many are on their own own to find food, shelter and medical care, making them vulnerable to traffickers for profit and exploitation.

In 2000, the UN adopted the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, then in 2003, its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Under its provisions, trafficking is illegal, defined as:

"Trafficking in persons (by) the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."

Exploitation is defined, "at a minimum," to include "prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs."

Anyone under 18 is considered a child, and State Parties are called on to adopt laws or other measures "to establish criminal offences" under the Convention. Haiti hasn't done so, leaving its children vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses.

Pan American Development Foundation (PADF) Report on Child Trafficking in Haiti

In November 2009, PADF published a report titled, "Lost Childhoods in Haiti: Quantifying Child Trafficking, Restaveks & Victims of Violence." It's a disturbing picture of "extremely poor children who are sent to other homes to work as unpaid domestic servants," and end up being beaten, sexually assaulted, and exploited by host families. Later, in their teens, "they are commonly tossed to the streets to fend for themselves and become victims of other types of abuses" because Haitian labor laws require employers to pay domestic workers over aged 15.

PADF studied the problem through "the largest field survey on human rights violations, with an emphasis on child trafficking, abuse and violence." It conducted 1,458 personal interviews in troubled urban neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien, Gonaives, Saint-Marc and Petit-Goave and learned the following:

-- children are moving from impoverished households to less poor ones;

-- in urban areas, an estimated 225,000 children are Restaveks, two-thirds of them girls;

-- the impoverished Cite Soleil Port-au-Prince neighborhood had the highest percentage of Restavek children - 44%;

-- families in the southern peninsula communities of Les Cayes, Jacmel, Jeremie and Leogane supply the most Restaveks to Port-au-Prince;

-- some children sent to host families for education aren't classified as Restaveks, but perform similar duties;

-- more than 7% of urban households report incidents of rape, murder, kidnapping, or gang involvement, but the true number is likely higher as many incidents go unreported; and

--Port-au-Prince households had over double the amount in other cities (16%).

Over 30% of surveyed households have Restavek children, affecting 16% of all children and 22% of them treated that way. Overall, study findings show Restaveks aren't solely a rural phenomenon given the high proportion of urban households with them.

The majority of urban ones were born in rural Haiti, but urban households comprise the largest recruitment destination. All regions supply them, the most important being southern peninsula rural areas. In addition, many households take in children as school borders, the vast majority treated like Restaveks without the label, and some families with them also send their own children to live with host families in return for services performed.

Kinship is a prime and more socially acceptable recruiting source. However, family ties may camouflage poor treatment when children are away during the school year. They traditionally do household chores at home, but as Restaveks far more in an abusive environment.

PADF cited other issues, including:

-- growing numbers of street children forced to beg to survive;

-- young women (including underage adolescents) recruited for prostitution;

-- Restavek cross-border trafficking to the Dominican Republic, including for sex;

-- kidnappings to sell children and women into bondage; and

-- violence in urban neighborhoods, including organized murder, rape, other physical assaults, and kidnappings committed by the Haitian National Police, UN MINUSTAH peacekeepers, other armed "authorities," and politically partisan gangs.

PADF Summary of Key Findings

An "astonishing high percentage" of surveyed children live with host families - 32% and 30% of surveyed households had Restaveks present. Other findings included:

-- 16% of all surveyed children were placed as Restaveks, and 22% were treated that way, including 44% in Cite Soleil;

-- two-thirds of Restaveks are girls;

-- poverty is the root cause of Restavek placements;

-- a significant minority of Restavek households placed their own children with host families; yet kinship ties don't shield them from abusive treatment, even for those sent only for the school year;

-- "the magnitude of the intra-urban movement of children within....metropolitan area(s) is (a) significant new development;"

-- most urban Restaveks were born in rural areas, but in Port-au-Prince, other households are the largest single source; thus Restavek recruitment no longer can be viewed solely as a rural to urban phenomenon;

-- other victimization forms include rape, murder, kidnapping, and cross-border trafficking; and

-- most abused victims don't seek help from authorities because little is available, including in court.

Public Policy and Haitian Law

Haitian law doesn't specifically prohibit trafficking internally or cross-border, so seeking judicial redress is futile, and the police child protection unit doesn't pursue these cases because statutory restrictions don't exist.

Nonetheless, in March 2009, the Haitian parliament ratified (but doesn't enforce) the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols on human trafficking and smuggling. The parliament is also considering a human trafficking law, but real social change was never before achieved, except under Aristide. Haitians have been oppressed for over 500 years. The current government has done nothing to change things, and now can't under occupation.

A Final Comment

Given their overwhelming hardships, the last thing Haitians needed was the January 12 quake (the most destructive in the region in 170 years), affecting Port-au-Prince, surrounding areas, and other parts of the country, devastating the capital, killing many thousands, injuring many more, and disrupting the lives of three million or more people, adding to their crushing burden.

Many tens of thousands lost everything left stranded on their own, given the lack of essential aid most still aren't getting. Everything is in shambles. Rubble is everywhere. The National Cathedral, Palace of Justice, and Supreme Court collapsed. So did hotels, other municipal buildings, business structures, schools and hospitals.

People still wander the streets dazed, searching for loved ones. The National Palace was heavily damaged, now under US control as a command center. So was UN headquarters, and many of its employees remain missing. In the wealthy Petionville neighborhood, a hospital, ministry building and private homes collapsed. So did other buildings across the capital and in rural communities like Leogane. Jacmel in the southeast also sustained major damage.

The Parliament collapsed. So did public buildings and hospitals, and those functioning are packed with victims or others queued outside waiting for treatment. The World Food Program (WFP) reached only 100,000 people as of January 31. On February 2, targeted vaccinations will begin that, according to the world's foremost authority, Dr. Viera Scheibner, will exacerbate, not lessen the communicable disease problem as vaccines often cause the diseases they're designed to prevent.

Enough food, clean drinking water and medical care remain urgent problems, the US occupation force doing nothing to help and actually obstructing aid deliveries by restricting incoming humanitarian flights and letting supplies stack up undelivered at the airport it controls. As a result, vital shipments are reaching a fraction of the millions who need them.

In its latest February 1 report, OCHA said hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitians need shelter provisions.  Poor sanitation greatly increases the risk of communicable diseases and remains a huge challenge, and virtually all essential needs are in short supply.

It added:

"Preliminary results from Port-au-Prince found that 93 percent of people surveyed said there was no adequate lighting; 93 percent said there were no latrines for women and men; 41 percent said the level of security was acceptable and 29 percent said it was very poor. The preliminary findings confirm that food, water, sanitation, health and shelter are the areas with the most urgent needs."

Before the tragedy, most Haitians had no running water, electricity, sanitation, or other public services leaving them on their own, virtually out of luck, and now out of it entirely with relief expected only for the privileged, not them beyond lip service and bare essentials, way short of what's needed.

It's an old story for some of the most abused, exploited, and neglected people anywhere, mostly by their powerful northern neighbor allied with Haitian economic elites; names like Acra, Apaid, Baussan, Biglo, Boulos, Brandt, Coles, Kouri, Loukas, Madsen, Mevs, Nadal,  Sada, Vital, Vorbes, and other influential bourgeoisie interests exploiting their own people for profit.

Hundreds of thousands around the country are still coping with the damage that summer 2008 storms caused leaving them without food, clean water, other essentials, and around 70,000 homes destroyed. Gonaives, Haiti's third largest city became uninhabitable. Most of Haiti's livestock and food crops were destroyed as well as farm tools and seeds for replanting. Irrigation systems were demolished, and buildings throughout the country collapsed or were damaged, many severely. Now this, affecting Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas with the overall toll yet to be assessed.

For poor Haitians, it's already known. Decimated by unimaginable hardships and depravation, they're on their own and out of luck because of the callous disregard for their lives and well-being - and their country now occupied for the duration.

Stephen Lendman is a Mathaba Analyst. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at:
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