Where did you sleep last night? Where did you eat? What does your neighbourhood look like? These are some of the questions United Nations staff are asking hundreds of children in Haiti after launching a new programme to keep track of children orphaned or separated from their families by the earthquake.
Based on the given information and photographs taken, workers will begin to trace the families of these children, if they exist. A similar registry was used after the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and more recently in cyclone-hit Myanmar.
The Haitian Government estimates that up to 60,000 children have been affected by the earthquake. UNICEF expects to register several thousand children in the coming weeks.
“We’ve been working with 29 partner organizations and the Government around the clock. We’re moving forward but it’s going to take some time; this is a long process,” Roshan Khadivi, a spokeswoman for UNICEF in Port-au-Prince, told the UN News Centre.
“For teenagers, it’s easy for them to describe where they lived, but for babies it is much more difficult,” Ms. Khadivi said. “Some children have been traumatized so they may not open up immediately. We have counsellors on hand.”
There are some success stories. Guy Hubbard, communications officer with UNICEF, wrote online about 11-year-old Sindy, who was separated from her family during the earthquake. Alone and injured, she wandered to a hospital. The hospital contacted UNICEF, which was able to track her relatives and reunite the family.
“I was so happy to see them. I hugged them, and they were so happy to see me again,” Sindy told UNICEF.
The children without anyone to look after them are then moved to one of five so-called “safe spaces” in Port-au-Prince. Housed in stable buildings safe spaces provide children with access to shelter, food, water and trauma counsellors. Children are taken to medical facilities, if required.
UNICEF and its partners now have the capacity to house 900 children and are surveying new locations. The buildings have to provide a safe haven for the children, including an area where the children can play and interact out of view.
“There are no signs on our buildings and we keep the locations private. We keep hearing reports of people just showing up at various locations. An older child can speak but babies can become victims,” Ms. Khadivi said.
Since the quake, there have been reports in the media of rushed or even illegal adoptions and possible human trafficking. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is conducting investigations into alleged kidnappings.
“Are some of the reports true? Yes, unfortunately. This is an issue raised at the highest level in the Haitian Government, with our partners and with the international community,” said Ms. Khadivi.
As of 22 January, all adoptions in Haiti have to be approved by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. As another layer of security, UNICEF has been working with local police known as the Children’s Brigade – to check documents of all children leaving Haiti through the Port-au-Prince airport or the border with the Dominican Republic.
This weekend, a United States-based charity group was arrested at the border with 33 Haitian children who allegedly have not had their paperwork approved by the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, families around the world in the process of adopting Haitian children have pressured their governments to speed up the process – to the discouragement of UNICEF.
“We are sending a message to the international community that while some adoptions have already been approved, we are asking everyone to hold off and let us register these children, and – if possible – to connect them with their communities,” Ms. Khadivi said.
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman has called Haiti a “children’s emergency.”
In a statement released on 19 January, she noted that “these children face increased risks of malnutrition and disease, trafficking, sexual exploitation and serious emotional trauma. The race to provide them with life-saving emergency food and medicine, safe shelter, protection, and care is under way.”
As a way of proving a sense of stability to children, the Haitian Government today reopened a few of the schools that withstood the earthquake. Only 10 per cent of the schools in Port-au-Prince are functional and about 40 per cent in the southern port city of Jacmel and other localities.
“There are families who are afraid of sending kids to school because they’re afraid there will be another quake,” Ms. Khadivi said.
She said that she hoped the return to school, along with an immunization programme UNICEF planned to launch this week against measles, diphtheria and tetanus, would give families a greater sense of normalcy.
“What I find amazing,” Ms. Khadivi said, “[is that] people are shaken, but we have come across people who have not lost hope. They are working. There is a sense to restart again. There is hope. I wish that would come across more. Children want to go back to school. People want to bring back a sense of normalcy to their lives and their children’s lives, and want to move on.”