By Emilio Godoy, IPS
PUEBLA, Mexico, – The January earthquake that devastated Haiti put women and girls in the poorest country in the hemisphere at an increased risk of falling prey to people trafficking, activists and experts warn.
“The phenomenon has become much more visible since the earthquake, with the increase in the forced displacement of persons,” said Bridget Wooding, a researcher who specialises in immigration at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
“There is huge vulnerability to a rise in human trafficking and smuggling,” she told IPS.
The Dominican Republic and the United States are the main destinations for Haitian migrants. The figures vary, but there are between 500,000 and 800,000 Haitians and people of Haitian descent in the U.S. and between one and two million in the Dominican Republic.
Women in Haiti “are exposed to forced prostitution, rape, abandonment and pornography,” Mesadieu Guylande, a Haitian expert with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Latin America and the Caribbean (CATW-LAC), told IPS.
The situation in Haiti was one of the issues discussed by representatives of NGOs, experts and academics from throughout the region at the Second Latin American Conference on Human Smuggling and Trafficking, which ran Tuesday through Friday in Puebla, 130 km south of Mexico City.
The 7.0-magnitude quake that hit the Haitian capital on Jan. 12 and left a death toll of at least 220,000 forced tens of thousands of people to live in camps.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
Smuggling of persons, again according to the U.N., is limited to “the procurement of the illegal entry of a person into a state party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.”
In Latin America, an estimated 250,000 victims a year fall prey to trafficking networks, yielding a profit of 1.35 billion dollars for organised crime rings, according to statistics from the Mexican Ministry of Public Security. However, NGOs say the numbers could be higher.
Organisations like the CATW-LAC estimate that over five million girls and women have been trapped by these criminal networks in the region, and another 10 million are in danger of falling into their hands.
After the earthquake, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), which has been in the country since 2004, beefed up security along the porous border with the Dominican Republic.
Authorities in the Dominican Republic deported some 20,000 Haitians a year between 2003 and 2008, according to government figures.
Since the tragedy, the New York-based Sanctuary for Families, a non-profit organisation dedicated to aiding victims of domestic violence and their children, has taken in some 100 Haitian women.
“They came illegally, with forged documents or with expired visas. We offer them shelter, financial assistance or legal advice,” Dorchen Leidholdt, director of Sanctuary’s Centre for Battered Women’s Legal Services, told IPS.
Thursday was International Day Against the Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Women and Children, established in 1999 by the World Conference of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW).
“We have evidence of a growth in trafficking and smuggling of persons, which is reflected in the increase in the number of children panhandling in the streets of Santo Domingo, for example,” said Wooding, co-author of the 2004 book “Needed but Not Wanted”, on Haitian immigration in the Dominican Republic.
The author was in Port-au-Prince when the quake hit.
Even before the disaster, some 500,000 children were not attending school in Haiti, a country of around 9.5 million people, Guylande said.
Since 2007, there have been no convictions in the Dominican Republic under Law 137-03 against trafficking and smuggling, passed in 2003, according to the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report 2009.
As a result, the State Department reported that the government of the Dominican Republic “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” and put the country on its Tier 2 Watch List.
In Haiti, things are no different. Although the government ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, in force since Sept. 29, 2003, it has failed to implement its provisions in national laws.
“The penal system is fragile and the judiciary is neither independent nor trustworthy, a situation that works in favour of traffickers,” Guylande said.
The only legal case brought in Haiti was against 10 U.S. missionaries who tried to take 33 children out of the country after the January catastrophe. However, they were acquitted of charges of smuggling children and released from prison.
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