Recent media reports have revealed that children from Haiti are being trafficked to the Dominican Republic in large numbers, with girls mainly exploited for sex and boys forced to work.
Just a few days ago, on March 24, a Haitian national accused of trafficking and sexually abusing teenage girls was arrested in the Dominican beach town of Puerto Plata, a popular tourist destination, El Nuevo Diario reported. The 40-year-old man had a warrant out for his arrest in Haiti for recruiting girls and forcing them into prostitution. Two of the victims – ages 13 and 16 – said that they were taken against their will and forced to have sex with foreigners.
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Spanish news outlet El País also recently detailed how Haitian children are smuggled across the border and then forced to work, shining shoes, cleaning car windows, and begging in the streets -- only to have their proceeds taken from them. In illegal gambling rings, young boys are pitted against each other in dangerous street fights, El País reported.
According to Haitian child protection legislation, anyone below the age of 18 can be considered a victim of child trafficking.
“There is no migration control, no possibility or intention to combat child trafficking or any form of trafficking,” said Sylvestre Fils, director of the Observatory of Migration and Transfrontier Trafficking, a non-governmental organization based in the Haitian border city of Ouanaminthe.
Dominican troops at border crossings accept bribes of 500 to 2,000 pesos (about $9 to $35) to turn a blind eye to the smuggling of contraband and people, he told El País.
In an attempt to crack down on illicit cross-border activity, including human smuggling, Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader announced that the country will begin building a 400-kilometer wall across the entirety of its shared border with Haiti later this year. It will be equipped with facial recognition camera and radars, he said.
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Though child trafficking from Haiti to the Dominican Republic has long been an issue, trafficking rings appear to be taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, which has worsened poverty and hunger in Haiti, to target more children.
Dominican human rights activist Jorge Galván recently told Listin Diario that the trafficking of children between the two countries has intensified, particularly in border regions such as Dajabón in the Dominican Republic and Belladére in Haiti.
According to Haiti’s Institution of Social Welfare and Research, more than 50,000 Haitian children cross into the Dominican Republic every year, often driven by Haiti’s extreme poverty. The country is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, where more than 2.5 million people earn less than $1 a day.
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Impoverished families have been known to sell their children to unlicensed orphanages or to traffickers under the impression that they will be given a better life, according to El País.
Neither Haiti nor the Dominican Republic have met the minimum standards required to eliminate human trafficking, according to the 2020 Trafficking in Persons report out out by the US State Department.
The Dominican Republic was downgraded in the report from “Tier 2” to “Tier 2 Watch List.” Reasons cited for the downgrade included fewer trafficking convictions, inadequate sentencing, and decreased victim protection compared with the previous year. The report highlights cases where officials have not screened Haitian migrants for human trafficking indicators, despite the high prevalence of the crime. Dominican police collude with Haitian mafias to sell children into sex trafficking networks, the report states.
According to the report, Haiti increased efforts to curb human trafficking but still did not meet minimum standards.
Insufficient funding, weak judicial processes and a porous border contribute to an environment of impunity. Corruption facilitates child trafficking, with judges in Haiti often bribed to let traffickers go free.
The report also mentions that little has been done to prevent child servitude and recommends that the Haitian government dedicate funds to develop campaigns to educate the public on children’s rights and to train more law enforcement inspectors to look for trafficking indicators.
Experts from countries such as Dominican Republic, Colombia and Mexico came together this month for an Inter-American Development Bank conference to discuss how the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated human trafficking across the region.
Traffickers take advantage of “language barriers, irregular immigration status and the absence of caregivers,” said Jéssica Bedoya, chief of staff and executive adviser to the bank.
"All of this has become more acute in the context of COVID-19," Bedoya said.