Two years ago, when Winston was 12, his mother remarried. His stepfather didn’t want to look after him, and Winston was left out on the street. It is not an uncommon story in Haiti. UNICEF’s Gabi Menezes reports on efforts to protect Haitian children from trafficking and exploitation at the border with the Dominican Republic.
What happened to Winston afterwards was not unusual, either. Attracted by the idea of finding a better life, he crossed illegally into the neighboring Dominican Republic. There, he says, a policeman found him on the street, took him home and raped him.
Talking to an aid worker in the Haitian border town of Anse-à-Pitres, Winston says that despite his terrible experiences on the street, he cannot go back to his family. “I now live here,” he insists.
Impact of the earthquake
Anse-à-Pitres is one of many places where Winston and children like him cross illegally into the Dominican Republic in search of work and a better future. The border police check cars and people going through, but especially on market days, it is easy for children to slip through illegally in the crowds.
A Haitian boy at a market
UNICEF estimates that at least 2,000 Haitian children were trafficked to the Dominican Republic last year. The impact of the January 2010 earthquake has probably made the situation worse, as many families have become poorer.
To help address this problem, UNICEF supports the Brigade de Protection des Mineurs—or Child Protection Brigade—of the Haitian police, which checks vehicles to prevent unaccompanied or undocumented children from crossing the border. But UNICEF and its partners must reinforce the brigade’s work.
“The number of police at the border is limited. They have to work on issues ranging from crime to drug smuggling, and need help to deal with the significant number of children that try and make the crossing,” says UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Gallianne Palayret.
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Drop-in centers for the vulnerable
At a playing field on the Haitian side of the border at Anse-à-Pitres, about 40 children gather twice a week to dance and sing. They are led by instructors from Heartland Alliance, a UNICEF-supported non-governmental organization.
Drop-in centers like this one, which have been established at several border points in Haiti, welcome the most vulnerable youth—including street children. For a few hours, they can play and learn. They also get a hot meal.
“We offer children the possibility to be a child,” explains Heartland Alliance team leader Clarine Laura Johannes. “We also have designed programs where they can at least learn how to write their names, and [we] teach them how to count. We try to teach them things that they can use in their environment, and in their future.”
Many of the children at the drop-in center tell stories similar to Winston’s. Several children here left their village near Anse-à-Pitres because they were hungry and thought that they could find work in the Dominican Republic. Others were put out by their parents.
“UNICEF is really trying to help street kids at the border,” says Ms. Palayret. “We are also continuing to reunify Haitian children found in the Dominican Republic with their parents in Haiti, but we always need to make sure that this is in the best interest of the child.”
Drop-in centers at border sites will continue to welcome street children and provide them with needed support. In this way, Winston, and other vulnerable children like him, can regain their childhood.