Aid workers in Haiti say hundreds of thousands of children are at risk in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake. The case of 33 children allegedly abducted by a group of Americans illustrates the plight of children separated from parents, and those whose families are living in desperate conditions.
The circumstances remain murky surrounding the 33 children allegedly being smuggled out of the country by a group of American church members. Aid officials say all were supposed orphans, but at least 20 were known to have living family members, in some cases parents.
The Americans have been charged and the children have found refuge at a center run by the Austrian-based charity SOS Children's Villages International. Charity official Georg Willeit says one infant was dangerously dehydrated, but all of the children are well now. "At least, they have here a safe haven. They are sure of their daily meals. They have friends to play with because they are integrated into our family houses," he said.
While the children are here, they will join several hundred others, both orphans and displaced children, in day-to-day activities, including helping with chores and studying.
Those separated from relatives will later be reunited with their families.
The United Nations' children's organization UNICEF says one and a half million children were affected by the earthquake. UNICEF Haiti spokesman Kent Page says the disaster has created a children's emergency. "Separated children, unaccompanied children, can be vulnerable to people who would exploit them, whether for the child sex trade, whether for domestic servitude, whether just violence or abuse, and whether for illegal trafficking," he said.
For children separated from families and lucky enough to find safe haven at a center like this, international and Haitian authorities plan to conduct a search for living relatives. "It's very important that these children be registered, identified, and brought into a family tracing and family reunification process as quickly as possible because we need these children to be in a safe, protective environment with their immediate or their extended family," he said.
He says Haiti's children also need schools rebuilt and basic social services. Georg Welleit says the process of rebuilding will take time. "Here in Haiti, everything is out of order at the moment. And it's still a chaotic situation, and it will last for years and years. And it will be really necessary that there is a close cooperation between all NGOs which are based here, between the UN and the US, to really rebuild this country, and to involve the local people," he said.
He says it is essential to help the children, the most vulnerable of the people of Haiti.