The whole world was moved and indignant when it learned of the presumed kidnapping of 33 children during the full-blown crisis of the Haitian people caused by the powerful earthquake of January 12, 2010. The government of Haiti was annoyed by the public media attention that this news received. Perhaps unconsciously, this governmental reaction revealed an acknowledgement of what they assume as the normal state of affairs. Why? Because “everyone in this country knows about the trafficking of children: there are the mafias of lawyers, the leaders of sects, the small, established ‘ad hoc’ power groups, the fraudulent doctors … – says Fr. Miguel Jean Baptiste, a parish priest in Haiti – this is the normal state of affairs in this country”. It is nothing new; international trafficking has been present in Haiti since the time of French colonialism. In this Haiti is no different from other poor countries. People are vulnerable, even more so if they are children and orphans.
In Haiti, it is common to send small children from poor families to richer homes in towns. There, they work for a pittance, without rights or rest. They are called restavek, a slang word from the French rester avec – stay with – and they are a new form of slaves. These children, of various ages, have poverty in common. In their new “residence” they eat little, rarely sleep and work a lot, according to persons directly familiar with the reality. Some of these children end up being sold to people who take them outside the country. They might in turn be illegally adopted by a family in the States, or ‘bought’ by one of the many cartels controlling the sex trade in the Caribbean.
Since independence, the various governments that led Haiti paid little attention to the life of peasants. There was never an agrarian policy, and the poorest are left to fend for themselves. Haitians are poor, much more so the rural population. There are no adequate schools or educational centres for children. Families have no money to support their children. This is why many do not hesitate to give their children away. This is the hard reality in so many poor countries.
In Haiti, it is often the ‘religious intermediary’ of a sect that collects children from the countryside and places them in the care of ‘good families’ in Port au Prince. Parents usually know that they will never see them again, but they would give the children over to these people again, since they are not able to support them. This is the tragedy for many families of this country who are not able to neither give their children a piece of bread nor take them to school. This is the phenomenon that repeats itself over and over. The reason is that since the independence of Haiti there has not been a clear effort to free its people from a mentality of slavery. In fact, it has been cultivated.
It is calculated that there are some 300,000 restaveks. While not all of them are victims of mistreatment, a disturbingly high percentage of them are. Ages range from 5 to 17 years old. Almost 70 per cent are girls; the majority subjected to even greater abuse. Between January, 2007 and June, 2008, 238 rapes were documented. In reality there are many more. These young boys and girls are “the poor of the poor.” The look in the eyes of these children is the saddest in Haiti. The only positive aspect is that many “welcoming families” have experienced what it is to be restavek.
Alongside these families that take in as many children as they can into their homes, there are persons who dedicate their lives for these unfortunate little ones. Fr. Miguel Jean Baptiste is one of them. His parish is poor but it is very rich in humanitarian commitment and in fraternity. There, on the heights of a hillside, sunny and dusty, surrounded by pitiable housing, is his parish and his work. Among the many good things there, he has created a shelter for the restaveks, in the Carrefour area of Port-au-Prince. This shelter cares for almost 400 children. There, they are given food, taught to read and write, and given affection, which is what these children need most. Tragically, some of them disappeared forever with the earthquake. A few of them died and were buried in mass graves; other found their way to the States or other countries where unscrupulous people took them for personal profit.