Inspiration in Haiti: The Spirit of Trafficking Survivors

Posted by Luis CdeBaca
January 12, 2011
A Child Walks in Port-au-Prince

About the Author: Ambassador Luis CdeBaca directs the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The tremendous outpouring of support for the people of Haiti in the wake of last year's devastating earthquake was an inspiration to everyone. My inspiration is found not only in the generosity of donors and the hard work of anti-trafficking organizations working tirelessly to end modern slavery but also in the spirit of courageous trafficking survivors such as Stephanie, a seven-year-old child of poor rural farmers. When Stephanie was just six, a family friend offered to send her to school in Port-au-Prince. Though her parents initially thought it was a blessing from God, there was no school and her life became a living nightmare, where she was forced to work extremely long hours, doing all the household chores and fetching water from distant distribution points. After her "master" died during the earthquake, Stephanie was homeless and wandered aimlessly from one camp to another, offering to do any type of domestic work in exchange for food. Finally, staff from the International Organization for Migration, funded by my office, found her crying in the street and took her to a shelter run by a partner organization. Within a short time, they were able to find her family, reunite them, send Stephanie to school, and help her mother expand her business. Now 14, Stephanie says of her release from servitude, "I would like this to happen to all the other children as well."

My office is focused on making this dream become a reality. We are not strangers to the challenges. We recognize that Haiti struggled with centuries of plantation-based slavery. We recognize that Haiti continues to be a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for forced labor and forced prostitution. We understand that the majority of trafficking cases are found among the 225,000 restavèks, or child slaves found in domestic settings in Haiti. We recognize the particular vulnerabilities of these children to beatings, sexual assaults, and other abuses by family members in the homes where they are residing. Since the earthquake, local shelters report receiving a record number of restavèks. Indeed, the earthquake only compounded an age-old problem by uprooting thousands -- if not millions -- of people, making them vulnerable to human traffickers.

Yet, history shows the resilience of the Haitian people and local civic leaders know that lasting change will come from culturally-based domestic solutions. This is why my office, the State Department, and others in the U.S. government are committed to partnering with anti-trafficking and local organizations to respond to the emergency, rebuild Haiti, and tackle historical and present-day human trafficking challenges.

Over the last year, my office funded nearly $1 million in new grants to respond to the heightened risk of trafficking of Haitian children. We supported the International Organization for Migration, working with local NGOs, to restore the lives of child trafficking victims through the provision of nutritional, medical, psychological, and educational assistance; a safe shelter; and reintegration assistance. This reintegration aid consists of tracing the child's biological family, proving financial assistance to improve their livelihood, and reuniting them with their child.

We have also funded the Restavèk Freedom Foundation which has increased enrollment in its child sponsorship program from 210 to 425 restavèk children since October 2010. These children, who would otherwise be denied access to education, are provided tuition fees, uniforms, and books necessary to attend school and the support to be successful.

We are funding Heartland Alliance, which works with the government of Haiti's agency for child welfare and protection, to screen children at all four designated border crossings between Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- a process never before conducted at the border. Children identified as suspected victims of trafficking are registered, transferred into the care of the appropriate government agency and, when possible, reunified with their families. With our support, Heartland Alliance has now screened over 14,000 children since February 2010. Of those, nearly 200 have been registered as potential victims of child trafficking and transferred into the custody of the Haitian child welfare agency.

All these examples represent hope for the future but so much more can be done so today. Later this week I will be announcing an additional award of $4.75 million to ten grantees to strengthen Haitian institutional and civil society capacity to identify and respond to human trafficking.

The one year anniversary of a tragedy is a time where we can both find signs of inspiration and redouble our efforts to create a society free from slavery. We are happy to play a small part in the overall effort to help Haiti rebuild, restart, and reinvigorate its efforts to rebel against all forms of slavery.

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