The otherwise incompetent government of Haiti — the most corrupt in the Western hemisphere — seems to be doing at least one thing right. At the prodding of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), it is keeping a close watch over its borders in the wake of UN fears that the chaos in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake could embolden child traffickers into taking Haitian children out of the country for sale or illegal adoption, as well as sexual and other forms of exploitation.

Trafficking in children is among the most odious forms of human trafficking — the practice of luring, forcing, misleading or removing through various means men, women and children from their homes and communities to other parts of a country, or across international borders. It is illegal in most countries including the Philippines, where, however, human trafficking nevertheless flourishes.

Most Filipinos are familiar with the cases of women lured from their villages to the cities on the promise of high paying jobs only to end up in prostitution or involuntary servitude. But men and women can also end up in other countries, where they are forced to labor at low wages or even none while paying off debts supposedly incurred by those facilitating their travel abroad while their passports are held by their employers. In this form the practice is a type of debt peonage, and comes close to slavery.

The sale of babies and children for adoption or other purposes, whether within national boundaries or across them, is a form of trafficking. As January was ending, the Haitian police arrested on suspicion of child trafficking ten men and women with US passports who were about to cross the Haiti-Dominican Republic border in a bus with 33 children.

Claiming to be from an Idaho, US-based Baptist group called New Life Children’s Refuge, the Americans claimed that in attempting to spirit out of Haiti (they had no documentation at all) the children whose ages ranged from two months to twelve years, they were being moved by the highest altruistic aims, which they vaguely described as “rescuing” Haitian children.

An Agence France-Presse report says that the group website is soliciting donations to bring 100 Haitian children to safety in the Dominican Republic and for volunteers to take care of the children. The website declares its purpose to be to “rescue Haitian orphans abandoned on the streets, makeshift hospitals, or from collapsed orphanages,” and says that it has leased a 45-room hotel in the Dominican town of Cabarete as a temporary shelter for the children.

It turned out, however, that 22 of the 33 children were not orphans, but had been allowed to go with the group by their parents, which raises the possibility that the parents were paid off or otherwise provided some kind of compensation. The group’s use of the Dominican Republic as a trans-shipment point also raises suspicions as to its intentions, given the vagueness of its stated purpose. Although many assume that they’re rescuing the children from devastated Haiti for adoption in the United States, in none of the group members’ statements was that ever specified.

It may very well be that the Americans are no more than the do-gooder, know-nothings — people ignorant of the implications of their actions on others as well as of other cultures — who infest the religious scene in the US. But it is also possible that they’re part of a syndicate exploiting the agony of Haiti and the often naïve openness of far too many of their countrymen to the idea of doing a good deed by paying for the privilege of adopting children from an impoverished country so they can assure them better futures in “the best country in the world.”

The arrest of the group nevertheless came in the wake of warnings by UNICEF that separation from their families as well as the hopelessness among the poorest Haitian families have made children extremely vulnerable to trafficking. UNICEF frowns on the idea of international adoptions in general, and on the separation of children from their parents, which in many impoverished countries of the world occurs with parental consent in exchange for payment. Recall how, in the Philippines, some parents have been known to allow pedophiles to exploit their children in exchange for appliances and a few dollars.

International adoptions are not permitted in many countries, and in any case are controversial, despite the much publicized adoption by US actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of mostly Asian and African children. Although there is widespread approval of it in the United States, where the assumption is that such adopted children are being assured a better future, there the assumption is that not only is the adoptive culture superior, the home culture is inferior and deserves to lose its children. However, adopted children from other cultures in the US often end up as alienated from the cultural mainstream as children born into that supposedly multi-racial but nevertheless extremely racist society.

Human trafficking including trafficking in children, in which many critics include international adoptions, is among the many consequences of an unjust world order in which the elite in a handful of countries control most of the world’s resources, while the rest of the planet’s population has little or nothing. The grinding poverty and the immense disparities in development, wealth and opportunities the world order perpetuates force the poorest of the earth, including parents, to trade in their own children. But a vital part of the problem as well is that both the affluent as well as the criminal in the wealthy countries are only too willing to engage in the trade, whether in the illusion that they’re doing the children a favor, or for gain. Either way profit, whether emotional or material, is made from the misery that rules a planet of great injustice and great poverty.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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