Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Trafficking of Haitian children up

OCT 24, 2010 12:22 AM

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic After several days of going hungry, Marie said she surrendered to sexual propositions made by several men in the park where she begged in a resort town in the south of the Dominican Republic.

Marie, 12, said she had sex with "many" of those men, sometimes for a dollar, while her cousins, 13 and 10, begged European and American tourists for coins.

"I was hungry; I lost everything; we didn't know what to do," said Marie, explaining her decision to sell her body on the streets of Boca Chica.

The three children told reporters from El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald that they left Port-au-Prince with the help of a smuggler after the Jan. 12 earthquake devastated the city.

Today, the children sell boiled eggs for 10 cents all day, walking in the sun along Duarte Avenue, a bustling runway for juvenile prostitution in the heart of Boca Chica, where newly arrived Haitian girls sashay, offering their bodies to gray-haired tourists.

The story of Marie and her cousins has become commonplace: Since the earthquake, more than 7,300 boys and girls have been smuggled out of their homeland to the Dominican Republic by traffickers profiting on the hunger and desperation of Haitian children and their families. In 2009, the figure was 950, according to one human rights group that monitors child trafficking at 10 border points.

Several smugglers said they operate in cahoots with crooked officers in both countries - their versions verified by a U.N. Children's Fund report and child advocates on both sides of the border.

"All the officials know who the traffickers are but don't report them. It is a problem that is not going to end because the authorities' sources of income would dry up," said Regino Martínez, a Jesuit priest and director of the Border Solidarity Foundation in Dajabon, a Dominican border town.

Martínez has denounced the problem to the heads of CESFRONT, the Dominican Republic's Specialized Corps for Borderland Security.

After the earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 people, leaders in both nations pledged to protect children from predatory smuggling, a historic problem.

And the problem became an international scandal after members of a church group from Idaho tried to take 33 children from Haiti to an orphanage it was establishing in the Dominican Republic. For that they were charged with kidnapping and jailed. Yet one month later, without headlines, smugglers moved 1,411 Haitian out of the country, according to one child protection group in Haiti.

The newspaper found that the trafficking of children continues. Reporters witnessed smugglers carrying children across a river, handing them to other grownups, who put the kids on motorcycles and sped off to shantytowns. Border guards, charged with preventing this operation, witnessed the incidents and never reacted, reporters found.

Dominican President Leonel Fernandez did not respond to interview requests, but his office sent an e-mail saying that the government has intensified border security, prosecutions and sanctions against smugglers.

But Dominican immigration records show it has only made two convictions since 2006. And 800 children a month are brought into the Dominican Republic through different northern border crossings by a loose network of dealers, according to figures from Jano Sikse Border Network, which monitors human rights abuses along the border. The traffickers charge an average of $80 per head.

Vice Admiral Sigfrido Pared, the Dominican Republic's director of migration, called the figures plausible, even if his own agency does not track trafficking.

"It might be, but whether they are five, 10 or 20 is worrisome because we know that most of the children are [brought here] to be exploited on the streets by Dominican and Haitian adults."

The smugglers told reporters they travel unhindered hundreds of miles, through both countries, with caravans of children, with the protection of border patrols, soldiers and immigration officials.

Since February, reporters for El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald visited every clandestine station in the scabrous route children are forced to take.

On this journey, children and traffickers told the newspaper, kids go arm in arm through rivers and jungles; they are shoved onto motorcycles or into buses; some are forced to walk as long as three days without food. Other kids are kidnapped to pressure parents to pay the full price of the trip; some - as young as 2 - have been abandoned by the smugglers halfway through the journey.

Nelta, a slender 13-year-old Haitian, said she walked for three days with two other young girls to reach the Dominican Republic. She said a female trafficker left them at a hideout in Santiago de los Caballeros, the country's second-largest town.

"A man raped me in the shelter," said Nelta, who said she left Juanamendez, a Haitian border town, without her mother's knowledge after the earthquake.

"I can't go home empty-handed," she said softly, watching her words in front of the woman who took her to the Dominican Republic. She survived by begging on street corners under a red traffic light. In August, she returned home.

The buscones, as the smugglers are known, not only deliver children on request. They also deliver them a la carte to strangers.

Despite the horror stories, scores of Haitians of all ages - 250,000 this year, according to Pared - have long turned to the Dominican Republic because they believe there are more jobs in construction, tourist and service sectors.

The child trafficking occurs despite the governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic signing treaties and laws to combat it.

A U.S. State Department report this year concluded that the Dominican Republic "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so."

According to the report, since 2007 the Dominican government has not convicted any traffickers or government officials involved in trafficking.

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