External Action

How the EU can help Haiti's orphans

Georgette Mulheir / Sep 2016

Orphans in Haiti. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the European Parliament this week, parliamentarians and European Commission officials will meet Haitian Government representatives in an event which highlights the potential for a significant enhancement of EU support for reform of services for some of Haiti’s most vulnerable children.

SOME facts about poor and vulnerable children in Haiti which may not be widely understood in developed European countries: There are around 32,000 children in an estimated 760 so-called orphanages; very few of them are genuine orphans from the 2010 earthquake; and most are from very poor families and a number have disabilities. More than 80% of those children have at least one living parent and the vast majority have relatives who love and want them.

Whilst some of those orphanages are run with the best of intentions by genuine and generous people, a significant number are unlicensed and run by unscrupulous people whose sole aim is to make a profit from children. The conditions in the worst places are dreadful – polluted drinking water, inadequate food, no medical care and often no adult supervision for prolonged periods.

Our research has found that, in essence, many orphanages in Haiti are established as commercial enterprises. People with an entrepreneurial streak, and no genuine regard for the children’s best interests, have spotted the opportunity that foreigners like to donate money and time to orphanages. They set up orphanages without official approval and start filling them with children.

They pay ‘child finders’ to aggressively recruit children from families. Tactics include identifying pregnant women and paying for their pre-natal care. Then when the baby is born they coerce the woman to give them her baby as repayment for the money they have spent. Or they tell poor parents their child will get an education in an orphanage – and in many cases the education is not provided.

They then work to attract money from foreigners. Many of the children, particularly breast-fed babies, are healthy, but orphanage directors are known to deliberately malnourish them, so they can take photographs of emaciated babies they can put up online, appealing for help for “poor starving orphans.”

These orphanages are a magnet for child traffickers in criminal gangs. At times, the exploitation is for profit, though there is also evidence of sexual and physical abuse. The Haitian Government – its law enforcement and child protection agencies, and its judiciary – have prioritised the fight against trafficking, but need support to address such a vast crime effectively.

The EU is the world’s largest donor of development and humanitarian aid and has adopted an enlightened approach to helping some of the world’s most disadvantaged children, in institutions and orphanages.

The EU has already introduced a law which means that funding for Member States cannot be used to build or renovate institutions that separate children from families, but must instead support the creation of community services which support families to stay together. In doing so, it acknowledged 80 years of science and research proving that raising children in large, impersonal institutions or orphanages, deprived of the loving, stimulating adult care of a family, harms their physical, intellectual and emotional development, and their life chances.

EU officials have been looking at ways to apply that principle wherever in the world it provides aid. If the principle is good for European children, it should hold for all children. This is why senior EU figures are meeting the Haitian Government to identify support and technical expertise they may be able to offer, in the event entitled EU Supporting Haiti in the Fight against Trafficking of Children.

The US Government also provides significant support in Haiti and there is welcome movement in Washington DC. I recently joined a group of US Congress representatives on a visit to Haiti – who were shocked by what they saw – and I was invited to share our research in Haiti at a prestigious Congressional Black Caucus event.

Lumos analysis suggests approximately $100 million per year is being poured into orphanages in Haiti, predominantly by faith-based donors from the United States, and much of that money is disappearing. Very little of it is actually helping children. Spent differently, those vital funds could put 500,000 Haitian children in school every year.

If we can harness the power of the European Union – and the US Congress – in the fight against child trafficking in Haiti and work with many well-meaning donors to change funding priorities and practices, we can stop the flow of money into the hands of those committing crimes against children, for a profit. But it will take concerted, joined-up efforts of all involved to ensure the funds can be used to support the most vulnerable and marginalised children and families who need them most, keeping them together in their communities, where they belong.

Georgette Mulheir

Georgette Mulheir

September 2016

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