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UN: Children in Haiti at Risk of Being Trafficked

UNICEF says there is documented evidence showing many children have been taken out of the country illegally.

The United Nations Children's Fund warns children in earthquake stricken Haiti are at risk of being trafficked by unscrupulous adults. UNICEF says it is setting up so-called welcome centers where children, particularly unaccompanied children, can go and be safe.

The UN Children's Fund says even before the catastrophic earthquake struck, children in Haiti were at great risk of being trafficked. It says there is documented evidence showing many children have been taken out of the country illegally.

UNICEF Senior Regional Adviser for Child Protection, Jean-Claude Legrand, says there are reports of similar practices happening now.

"We have documented let us say around 15 cases of children disappearing from hospitals and not with their own family at the time being," he said. "We have anecdotal evidence of people crossing into San Domingo with children. And, there have been also observation at the airport of planes loading children."

Legrand says UNICEF and its partners have set up a surveillance system to register disappearances and, more importantly, to try to prevent them from occurring.

UNICEF says the protection of children is at the heart of its humanitarian operation in Haiti. It reports it has set up 20 centers where children who have lost or been separated from their family members can go and get care.

At these centers, aid workers identify and register unaccompanied children and try to reunify them with their families. UNICEF says the centers offer children a safe, friendly environment where they are given food and a space to play to relieve their stresses.

It says each of these centers receives about 2,000 children every day and soon two other centers, capable of hosting 4,000 children a day, will be opened.

Many people from abroad have expressed interest in adopting Haitian orphans. But, UNICEF generally opposes intra-continental adoptions, saying they only should be used as a last resort.

Jean-Claude Legrand says unaccompanied children in an emergency situation are not necessarily orphans. He says it is important this be verified before a child is given up for adoption.

"It is not because a child is hanging around in the streets that you suddenly declare that child as an orphan," said Legrand. "We do not consider that as a proper mechanism. It will take some time before we reach an understanding of the number of children who are going to be orphaned. Do not forget that Haitian society has a very strong setup and that there will be a lot of family members willing to care about children from their own families."

Furthermore, Legrand notes Haiti has a very big community living in the United States, Canada and other countries. He says many of these people will be willing to care for children who are related to them and have lost their parents.

On another matter, UNICEF says it will begin an urgent vaccination campaign against measles, polio and tetanus on Monday. It says it plans to immunize 360,000 children under five against these deadly diseases.