OUANAMINTHE, Haiti – On market days, Clarine Joanice sits on a plastic chair by the crowded bridge that marks the northern border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Every time a child walks by, she gently grabs its arm and asks the accompanying adults for travel papers.
Joanice, 27, is a child protection officer with the Heartland Alliance, a small human rights organization that has taken on the daunting task of monitoring the passage of minors through Haiti’s loose four border crossings with its neighboring country. Since January, Joanice and her colleagues have stopped 74 children they suspected of being trafficked out of Haiti, and have referred their cases to the Haitian National Police.
“We stop everyone, public cars, private cars, trucks, children on foot,” explained Joanice on a busy Monday morning, while thousands of vendors and shoppers carrying merchandise crossed the dusty bridge in and out the Dominican town of Dajabon. Over 100 children cross this border every week, but the number is at least double during the current summer vacation. Southern crossings closer to the capital are even more jammed, and controls are porous.
Before the earthquake, an estimated 2,000 minors were trafficked to the Dominican Republic annually. Since January, an inter-agency group devoted to the protection of minors has registered 3,356 children separated from their families, while more than 6,000 others have been moved out of the country, according to UNICEF.
But despite international polemics after a group of US missionaries attempted to illegally take 33 Haitian children into the Dominican Republic in the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake, Haiti still lacks legislation against the trafficking of minors. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF, among others, have provided technical assistance to the government in drafting such a law, but the proposal is still under revision.
“This lack of legal framework seriously hinders our work pursuing traffickers,” said Renel Costume, the Haitian Police commissioner in charge of the BPM told AFP.
The Heartland Alliance’s border control initiative, now carried out in cooperation with MINUSTAH and more recently, the Minor Protection Brigades (CPM) a special section of the Haitian National Police founded in 2003 in cooperation with UNICEF, is inevitably limited but it is often the only form of child protection on the country’s borders.
“It’s a mess, the border is totally open,” Ben-Achour, said. “It’s very easy to traffic children.”
While most people answer her questions, it is not unusual for child protection staff to chase people down the bridge when they refuse to stop.
“Some are quite hostile and often this hostility can hide something,” Joanice said, adding that she got used to insults and even death threats.
One smuggler recently offered her to split profits. The man was trying to cross the bridge with a 10 year-old girl, who was waiting alone for her mother to sell her products when he snatched her. When Joanice’s team stopped the man, the girl started to cry and said she didn’t know him.
“He just told us, let me go sell her, I’ll pay you half of it,” Joanice recalled. “Fifty-fifty.”
The Heartland Alliance has no mandate to arrest smugglers but it refers them to the local authorities, while keeping the children into custody until it has verified legitimate ties to the adults with them.
That is often complicated by a lack of documents, but child protection officers, who are now training the government’s own officers to do the same, also work with psychologists, interview the children and conduct rigorous investigations on each case, which they scrupulously register in databases shared with UNICEF and organizations like Save The Children.
“Before the earthquake, 40 percent of children had birth certificates. Now there are no statistics, but I would put it at half of that,” Ramsay Ben-Achour, the Heartland Alliance’s Haiti Director said, explaining that the organization is carrying out a sort of census of unaccompanied children, which it also uses for its family reunification programs. Alternative identifications methods range from reading body language to asking the parents to identify birthmarks or children to describe what they had for breakfast. Sometimes the process takes hours of phone calls and verifications with other relatives. Other times it’s as easy as asking children for their names.
“We’ve had traffickers provide birth certificates for the children and then pulled the children aside and they gave us completely different names,” Ben-Achour said.
While Haitian authorities are stationed on the border and UN troops and police watch the borders for illegal activities, almost nobody gets stopped on market days. Further south, the border town of Belladere, some 5km from the Dominican town of Elias Pina, has a custom service but lacks an immigration office altogether. While the rusty gate into the Dominican Republic closes at 6pm, it is not unusual for people to walk right around it after hours.
“The Haitian reality is that it’s hard to find people with passports,” said Marie Sonie Ducoste, 25, another child protection officer in Ouanaminthe, as she stops a man crossing the border with his two children, wearing their best clothes and headed to the market for the day.
“This is my son, look at him, he has the same ears as his sister,” the man tells her jokingly, pulling out of his wallet a family portrait and pointing to his children in it.
He has no travel papers but Ducoste lets him go anyway, after lecturing him on the importance of documents. Ducoste says she doesn’t stop clearly safe children or the many minor workers who cross the border back and forth to shine shoes or sell cold drinks, whom she now knows individually. But if she has any suspicion, she asks the adults to come back with their children’s and their own IDs.
“We don’t always know whether it’s trafficking or not, but if we have any doubt, or if the children look like they don’t know the persons accompanying them, we don’t let them through, and we refer them to the BPM or the police,” Ducoste said.
The Heartland Alliance has added to its protection plan car checkpoints further away from the border as well as early evening patrols with MINUSTAH’s Uruguayan troops and local police. It is also about to open a drop-in center where child workers can play on days with no market.
The organization’s mandate and security policy require police to accompany staff at all times, meaning that late-night shifts and entire areas that people frequently use to informally cross the border remain uncovered.
“It’s hard to identify how many children slip through the cracks, if we knew that we would have stopped them in the first place,” Ben-Achour admitted. “But a lot of smuggling happens in the evening time, when we are not there.”
“We can’t be there without the police but they don’t have man power, they don’t have the budget, they don’t have cars, gas, they don’t get paid all the time,” he added.
But while international organizations and national authorities are stepping up efforts, the lack of public resources is a challenge.
“We are dealing with insufficient staff,” said Renel Costume, the local head of the BPM, adding that the police would otherwise “seriously consider” patrolling at night and on unofficial border crossings. Since January, the brigades have stopped 3,000 minors on the border, 750 of whom carried no documents.
“In the coming months, BPM with the support of UNICEF will increase the territorial coverage,” UNICEF spokesperson Irene Sanchez echoed, adding that UNICEF “encourage national authorities to increase vigilance along the borders and at the airport.”
But at the moment, exit points remain largely uncovered.
Even on market days, when full teams of child protection officers work in Ouanaminthe, several children slip by and many more cross the border by fording the river under the bridge, named the “Massacre River” after a slaughter of Haitians by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1930s.
Children also sleep or play on either bank of the river, where drowning is common.
“Sometimes smugglers take children across the river by making them hold onto a cord,” Joanice of Heartland Alliance said. “But if something happens or they get scared, they just run away and leave the children there.”