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Sex traffic threat to quake orphans

Eliassaint Ketia, 10, lost both parents when her home collapsed in Haiti's earthquake, but in one sense she is fortunate. An uncle found her and, of all the hundreds of makeshift camps that have sprung up in Port-au-Prince, he took her to one of the two dozen where Save the Children has sent social workers.

Among the 450 families living in makeshift shelters on a football pitch in the district of Delmas, there are 37 other children like Eliassaint who were orphaned or lost contact with their parents on January 12. The camp is now their refuge -- a place where they are cared for and protected.

On the streets, however, many thousands more children have been left to fend for themselves in a city where child-trafficking and abuse was rife even before the earthquake closed the country's schools, destroyed its rudimentary welfare system, left its police force in disarray and sprang 4,000 criminals from prison.

Danger

"They're in danger. They're at risk of abuse and aggression. They could fall into the hands of traffickers and pimps -- especially the girls," Blemurned Junior, the camp's senior social worker, said. His fears are shared by leading child protection agencies, which are racing to find those children before criminals do.

"This is a huge, huge, huge opportunity for the gangs," said Nadine Perrault, Unicef's chief protection officer for the region. "There's lots of evidence of the traffickers moving very fast, using all sorts of means."

Jon Bugge, emergency communications manager for Save the Children, said: "Even before the earthquake Haiti was a dangerous place for children, and now it's even more dangerous. They are incredibly vulnerable to abuse, exploitation or harm."

Working with the Haitian authorities and 29 other organisations, the two agencies have placed monitors at Port-au-Prince's airport and Haiti's main border crossing with the Dominican Republic. They are touring hospitals, orphanages and the homeless camps that occupy every patch of empty land. They have set up a hotline, broadcast messages on local radio stations and are sending "mobile child brigades" to scour the slums.

Unicef has set up three centres in secret locations for any "unaccompanied children" it finds and has taken in 275 so far. "It's total, total chaos out there, which means time is of the essence," Ms Perrault said.

There is already circumstantial evidence to suggest that traffickers have exploited the chaos to spirit children out of the country through Port-au-Prince's airport for illicit adoption, sometimes by well-meaning foreigners anxious to help earthquake victims.

Aid workers talk of seeing fancy cars driving up to charter aircraft and dropping off children without any proper documentation. NGOs such as Save the Children and World Vision have demanded an immediate moratorium on adoptions of Haitian children.

There are also unconfirmed reports of traffickers luring children from camps by offering them food and shelter, of ill-intentioned foreigners masquerading as volunteers and doctors, and of children disappearing from hospitals -- "no one can say for sure whether it was family members or people just taking them," said Margarett Lubin, Save the Children's child protection manager in Haiti.

Exploitation

Aid agencies believe that traffickers, known as "buscons", are exploiting the chaos to smuggle children into the Dominican Republic, where they end up as child slaves, prostitutes or in organised gangs of beggars. Even before the earthquake the buscons were consigning 2,000 to 3,000 children a year to that fate.

Aid agencies fear many "restaveks" -- children from poor families sent to work as servants in return for their keep -- have been abandoned. "Traffickers fish in pools of vulnerability. We know from past experience that trafficking happens in the chaos that usually follows emergencies," Unicef said.

The problem, said Roshan Khadivi, Unicef's Port-au-Prince spokeswoman, is that after an earthquake as destructive as Haiti's, authorities are so pre-occupied with providing food, water and medical help, that "children can easily become the forgotten victims".

hnews@herald.ie