Gallianne Palayret is a Child Protection Specialist with UNICEF Haiti whose work focuses on protecting children against child trafficking between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This past January, she visited two official and several unofficial crossings on the Haitian border to assess the protective environment for children. Field report by Gallianne Palayret
PORT-AU-Prince, Haiti, 16 February 2011 – It’s eight in the morning. We are the first to arrive at the meeting point in Ouanaminthe, the most northern border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, for a patrol of non-official border points. This patrol was organised by the UNICEF-supported Haitian Police’s Brigade de Protection des Mineurs. Unfortunately, these patrols do not take place every day. A limited number of agents at the border must respond to numerous emergencies and prevention of child trafficking is not always a priority.
Forty-five minutes of bad road later, we stop the car and continue walking on a narrow path to one of the non-official borders between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The passage is a small and almost dry river – very easy to cross.
“I know this path, traffickers use it often,” says a policeman from Capotille, who is accompanying us.
UNICEF provides support
There are dozens of these non-official border crossings next to the official ones, and they cannot all be monitored 24/7. But ad hoc patrols like this one can be very effective. They unnerve traffickers by making them afraid they will be caught, which makes their business more difficult. UNICEF is working to increase the number and frequency of these patrols through its support of the Brigade de Protection des Mineurs.
Later in the day, we meet two children who were found abandoned on the border a few days ago and have been rescued by a family in the village. Sadly, the family is too poor to take care of these children. Marie, 8, and her brother Francisco, 4, were travelling with a man. He became scared when a woman from the village spotted him trying to cross the border. He ran away, abandoning the two children.
UNICEF supports a safe house in Ouanaminthe. The Soeurs Saint Jean, who run it, open their doors and their hearts to children who are victims of trafficking and are waiting to be reunified or placed in a residential care centre. This is where we take Marie and Francisco. Some toys, new friends, and a huge plate of food later and they have recovered their smile and the playfulness of their childhood.
Children crossing border
We left Ouanaminthe the next morning, not knowing exactly what we would find. Forty kilometres south of the border Ouanaminthe/Dajabon, on the Dominican side is the city of Restauracion. This is where the tarmac stops and the unpaved road begins. After driving for 10 minutes, the landscape changes; colourful Dominican houses and gardens are replaced with precarious houses with posters of the first round of the Haitian elections on the walls, and people speaking Creole. On the right side of the road lies Haiti and on the left side of it you are in the Dominican Republic – we crossed the border without even noticing it.
The village of Ti Lory does not appear on my map. It seems to have been forgotten by international and national aid, but the children here are just as vulnerable.
“Here people have sometimes up to 15 children. They are too poor to send them to school or even feed them,” explains the mayor of Ti Lory. He insists that UNICEF should come back soon to help them offer a better life to their children.
Between May and December of 2010, the Brigade de Protection des Mineurs stopped 1,437 children trying to cross the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic in Belladere without any proper documentation. This is four to five times more than the number of children stopped at any other border point between the two countries.
Unaware of risks
The village of Baptiste in the mountains 18 kilometers from Belladere is an example. Here people used to grow cocoa but with soil erosion and a sharp drop in cocoa prices, many people have been left unemployed. When we and our partners from Heartland Alliance arrive in the village to carry out a child trafficking sensitisation activity, people look at us with curiosity. They are not used to receiving visits, and a small crowd gathers around us.
Facilitators begin talking about children’s rights and the need for children to grow up within a family. They point out the risks children take when they cross the border.
“Haitian boys and girls brought to the Dominican Republic often end up in prostitution, begging in the streets, trafficking, or treated like domestic slaves in houses. Some are forced to pass drugs or arms,” explains one facilitator named Nicolas.
He adds: “Who has one or several children in Dominican Republic?”
One minute of silence precedes the raising of some hands. People admit shyly that they send their children to Dominican Republic. The crowd becomes animated. People say they were not aware of the risks they were taking for their children by sending them to the other side of the border; they thought they were giving them the chance for a better life.