I began working in Haiti in 2014. Several years had passed since the devastating earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. Billions in donor aid had been pledged to the country. It was almost impossible to see how any of that aid had been used. What had happened, though, was a flourishing orphanage-trafficking industry. Understandably, many well-intended people donating to Haiti’s orphanages believed the earthquake must have left huge numbers of children parentless. Some children had indeed lost both parents, but as happens in most countries, Haitian orphans were predominantly taken in by family members. Instead, more than 80% of the 30,000 children in Haiti’s orphanages had living parents. Most were there due to poverty – and the opportunities that arose for some people to get rich quick by opening orphanages.
Volunteering in Haiti’s orphanages became almost a rite of passage for young Americans, driven by a combination of motivations – religious duty, a desire to see the world, a wish to ‘help’ and an improved resume to get into college or land a job. One New York Times article exclaimed – To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?
To provide the volunteering and donating opportunities, some entrepreneurial people opened orphanages, but then they needed to fill them with children. They deceived or coerced parents living in poverty to give up their children, with the promise they would receive the care and education their families could not afford. Once in the orphanages, the promises failed to materialise. Conditions are amongst the worst I have seen anywhere in the world. High rates of physical and sexual abuse, malnutrition, children beaten to death, children simply disappearing. Little of the donations from volunteers and religious groups were spent on the children.
We were making headway on tackling this particularly egregious form of child-trafficking. I led research that found more than $100 million donated to Haitian orphanages annually, allegedly to care for 30,000 children. That money would put 770,000 children through school. This, and the evidence of abuse, was persuading the government, society and donors to change their approach.
But increasing government instability - with President Moise rapidly turning the country into a dictatorship, propped up by a pact with the gangs – meant all work to address child trafficking and to support families in poverty must grind to a halt. The President did not step down when his term ended. Instead, he convinced the international community that his term had not ended – despite the majority of Haitian legal experts disagreeing with his unorthodox interpretation of the country’s constitution. Investigations into massacres carried out by gangs in neighbourhoods known to oppose the government, found the direct involvement of senior government officials – and suggested that Moise might be complicit in likely crimes against humanity. As the security crisis spiralled out of control, the president himself was assassinated.
Today, most Haitians are fighting for survival. Millions are going hungry, as insecurity and a political vacuum hinder responses to another devastating earthquake. Friends tell me they are afraid to leave their homes – scared thy might be the next to be shot or kidnapped. But in the midst of the chaos and fear, and despite the real risk of harm, hundreds of representatives of a broad spectrum of civil society groups and political parties from across the country – known as the Montana Group – came together to plan a way out of the crisis.
Recently, 17 Americans were the latest high-profile victims of kidnapping in Haiti. They were returning from having volunteered in an orphanage. Like thousands of previous volunteers, they seemed to believe that somehow, their dedication – travelling to the country during its greatest crisis since the Duvalier era – would ‘help’ Haiti’s children. Most likely, they are amongst countless other naïve but well-intended volunteers who are unwitting participants in orphanage-trafficking. And they may become the catalyst for action by the international community. We can only hope that, as the US responds, they start listening to the solutions proposed by courageous Haitian people – who know better than anyone else what their country needs – and support them to lead the way out of the country’s crisis.