Concern for Haiti’s vulnerable children
NEW YORK, USA, 19 January 2010 – The earthquake that struck Haiti a week ago has left many thousands of children orphaned, lost or separated from their families – and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Even as it works to provide for the immediate needs of young survivors of the disaster, UNICEF is focusing on how to protect the most vulnerable among them. The issue is critical, given that nearly half of all Haitians are under 18 years of age, and almost 40 per cent are under 14.
“Every effort will be made to reunite children with their families,” UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman said today, expressing the organization’s deep concerns about the plight of unaccompanied children. “Only if that proves impossible, and after proper screening has been carried out, should permanent alternatives like adoption be considered by the relevant authorities,” she added.
In fact, UNICEF has begun the process of reuniting children with their families or other caregivers, working in coordination with the Haitian Government, Save the Children and the Red Cross. UNICEF and its partners are also establishing safe spaces for separated children and providing food and supplies for orphanages in Port-au-Prince, the hard-hit capital.
“These children face increased risks of malnutrition and disease, trafficking, sexual exploitation and serious emotional trauma,” said Ms. Veneman. “The race to provide them with life-saving emergency food and medicine, safe shelter, protection and care is under way.”
UNICEF Chief of Child Protection Susan Bissell stressed the importance of addressing both the physical and the psycho-social health of children in the earthquake zone. “How are children coping with the trauma?” she asked. “It’s a frightening situation.”
Ms. Bissell noted that traffickers prey upon vulnerable people, “and what we see in Haiti right now is a very large pool of very vulnerable children.” She said it was “disconcerting” that the quake has destroyed much of the aid infrastructure that would otherwise help shield young people from harm.
|Near the centre of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a boy walks through smoke from burning grass near an encampment of makeshift tents housing displaced survivors of the 12 January earthquake.|
Despite the challenges, Ms. Bissell predicted that “UNICEF will find a way, as we always do in these circumstances, to get around it and to do what’s best in terms of protecting children.”
Child protection and child rights
The issue of child protection in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake has also been raised by others in the humanitarian community, including the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In a 15 January statement, the Committee pointed to “the special vulnerability” of children in this situation,” adding: “Measures are urgently needed to protect children, especially those who have become separated from their families….” The statement concluded with an appeal for “efforts aimed at enabling as soon as possible the return of children to normalcy and stability, in order to regain hope for the future.”