Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Stealing Haitian Children

Gros Morne, Haiti.
The recent melodrama at the Haiti/Dominican Republic border involving ten missionaries who attempted to abscond with a busload of thirty-tree Haitian children without proper documentation highlights an important issue—the extreme vulnerability of Haitian children.

In the 1990’s Medicine For Peace transported Iraqi children to the United States for elective life-saving surgery. At the time, Iraqi hospitals were barely functioning, and there was a paucity of food and medicine because of the effects of the economic embargo. The rules for bringing Iraqi children to the U.S. were strict-- perhaps too rigorous for present day Haiti: all children needed passports, parents signed detailed consent forms, host families entered into a contract agreeing to care for the children and return them to their parents, hospitals made assurances to provide medical services, and the U.S. Consulate in Jordan reviewed and expedited each child’s travel. Even with the understanding that the children were temporary visitors, attachments formed quickly and most host families balked at returning the children to an Iraq in turmoil. But there was no question of the children reuniting to their parents after they recovered from surgery, even though many parents, unable to provide adequately for their children, would have agreed to allow the children an extended stay in America.

In contrast, the American missionaries accepted the Haitian children solely on the word of a third party, without any clear evidence as to whether they were parented or orphaned. The missionaries were more than “naive”; they were ignorant of National and International laws and guidelines devised to impede traffickers who convince poor families to give up their children with the promise of a better life for them. Many of those children end up in illegal adoptions, prostitution, or slavery. Child slavery, the restavek system, is widespread in Haiti. The UN Convention on the Rights of Children provides a framework for caring for children in crisis situations, and the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children presents guiding principles for looking after children separated from parental care because of extreme poverty exacerbated, in this instance, by a natural disasters. The optimum place for a child to be cared for is within the family; if that fails, it is the responsibility of State authorities to provide alternative care. Relief efforts should be directed to provide shelter, food, and security to support the family; removing the child is an act of last resort, and the State should be diligent in monitoring the process.

The drama of the jailed missionaries has resulted in a surplus of hypocrisy on all sides. Spokespersons for the Haitian Government were indignant that their Government’s sovereignty was violated by the attempted theft of the children. I have not heard the same indignation from the Preval Government about the estimated 300,000 orphans in Haiti, the hundreds of thousands of restavek children sold into slavery, or the appalling fact that only 2% of Haitian children finish secondary school. Take a hard look at the malnourished children roaming in gangs in Cite Soleil, La Saline, Carrefor, and the other slums of Port-Au-Prince, and then try to convince the outside world that the critical issue in this case is one of National sovereignty.

The U.S. State Department has responded to the Baptist missionary incident with terse comments about honoring the integrity of the Haitian justice system, implying that we only undertake humanitarian interventions in Haiti. Consider these statistics concerning Haitian children: Haiti has the highest infant mortality and under-five mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere; treatable diseases (malnutrition, diarrhea, respiratory infections) are the major cause of death, one-quarter of children have moderate to severe malnutrition, and over a million children in Haiti live in absolute poverty. Over the past two decades, our response to those statistics has been a series of political interventions that have destabilized the country, an economic embargo, and during the last administration, the U.S. blocked all loans from the InterAmerican Development Bank for health, sanitation, and road building projects in Haiti.

The news is not all bad for Haitian children. UNICEF has worked hard to get immunization rates well over 50%; and, neonatal, infant, and under-five mortality rates are showing a positive trend. Perhaps the present disaster will result in enhanced administrative capabilities within the Haitian Government, a focus on sustainable infrastructure development, and coordinated and long-term relief efforts by large donor groups. But until we consider the sight of black children with bloated bellies an obscenity, this disaster will be just another of many suffered by an inconsequential island off the coast of Florida. - Michael Viola

Dr. Michael Viola is Director of Medicine For Peace a Washington, DC based medical relief organization working in Gros Morne, Haiti.