THE BATTLE TO COMBAT CHILD TRAFFICKING IN HAITI
(AFP) - By Alice Speri
OUANAMINTHE - On market days, Clarine Joanice sits on a plastic chair by the crowded bridge marking the northern border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Every time a child walks by, she gently grabs its arm and asks the accompanying adults for travel papers.
Joanice is a child protection officer with the Heartland Alliance, a small US-based rights group helping to track down child traffickers sneaking minors through Haiti's porous border.
Since January's earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people, the group has stopped 74 children it suspected were being trafficked out of the country.
"We stop everyone, public cars, private cars, trucks, children on foot," explained Joanice on a busy Monday morning, as thousands of vendors carrying merchandise crossed the dusty bridge into the Dominican town of Dajabon.
Over 100 children cross the border each week, with that number doubling during school vacations. Southern crossings closer to the capital are even more jammed, and controls there are next to non-existent.
Before January's devastating quake, an estimated 2,000 minors were trafficked into the Dominican Republic annually, according to official figures.
Since then, the Haitian police's Minor Protection Brigades (CPM) has stopped 3,000 minors on the border, 750 of whom carried no documents.
Despite this and the international outcry that followed an attempt by US missionaries to illegally take 33 children into the Dominican Republic in the chaotic aftermath of the quake, Haiti still lacks the proper legislation to clamp down on the trafficking of minors.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF have provided technical assistance to the government in drafting a law, but the proposal remains under revision.
"This lack of legal framework seriously hinders our work pursuing traffickers," said CPM commissioner Renel Costume.
While immigration officers are stationed at the Ouanaminthe border post and UN troops and police are also on the lookout for illegal activities, almost nobody gets stopped on market days.
Further south at the Belladere crossing -- some five kilometers (three miles) from the Dominican town of Elias Pina -- there isn't even an immigration office.
The rusty gate into the Dominican Republic closes at 6:00 pm, and it is not unusual for people to walk right around it after hours.
Under the bridge that separates Ouanaminthe and Dajabon lies "Massacre River," named for the slaughter of Haitians by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1930s and now often the scene of drownings.
"Sometimes smugglers take children across the river by making them hold onto a cord," Joanice said. "But if something happens or they get scared, they just run away and leave the children there."
The Heartland Alliance's border control initiative, which interviews and registers children, parents, and potential traffickers is often the only form of traffic prevention at key border posts.
"It's a mess, the border is totally open," Ramsay Ben-Achour, Heartland Alliance's Haiti director told AFP. "It's very easy to traffic children."
Joanice related a recent experience in which her team stopped a man crossing the bridge with a 10-year-old girl who started to cry and said she didn't know him.
"He just told us, let me go sell her, I'll pay you half of it," she recalled. "Fifty-fifty."
The Heartland Alliance has no mandate to arrest smugglers but cares for the children in custody until their families have been tracked down.
That task is often complicated by a lack of documents, although child protection officers interview the children and conduct rigorous investigations registered in databases shared with a network of other NGOs.
"Before the earthquake, 40 percent of children had birth certificates. Now there are no statistics, but I would put it at half of that," Ben-Achour said.
Alternative identifications methods range from reading body language clues to asking parents to identify birthmarks. Sometimes the process takes hours of phone calls. Other times it's as easy as asking children for their names.
Marie Sonye Ducoste, a child protection officer in Ouanaminthe, stopped a man with two children, wearing their best clothes and apparently headed to the market.
"This is my son, look at him, he has the same ears as his sister," the man told her jokingly, pulling a photo from his wallet showing him with the two children.
He has no travel papers but Ducoste lets him go anyway, after lecturing him on the importance of documents.
"We don't always know whether it's trafficking or not, but if we have any doubt, if the children look like they don't know the persons accompanying them, we don't let them through," she said.