UNICEF warns of sex traffickers exploiting Haiti disaster

The earthquake that struck Haiti a week ago has left many thousands of children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, UNICEF Ireland warned today.

The earthquake that struck Haiti a week ago has left many thousands of children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, UNICEF Ireland warned today.

"The priority now is to reunite children with their families," UNICEF Ireland executive director Melanie Verwoerd said today, expressing the organisation’s deep concerns about the plight of separated children.

"It is too premature for the adoption of children that have been affected by the earthquake to take place. As was UNICEF's experience during the Indian Tsunami, every effort must first be taken to ascertain that these children are truly orphaned."

"We cannot be assume that these children have neither living parents nor relatives. Even if both their parents are dead, the chances of finding living relatives, a community and home to return to for these children after this emergency still exists.

"It is for this reason that children should not be considered for inter-country adoption at this time, and family tracing is the priority. Only if that proves impossible, and after proper screening has been carried out, should permanent alternatives like adoption be considered by the relevant authorities."

Speaking about the number of Irish parents who had already contacted UNICEF Ireland seeking information on adopting children from Haiti, Verwoerd said: "It is both a natural and instinctive reaction and we are deeply moved by the concern of parents in Ireland for the children who have been separated by the Haitian earthquake from their care-givers, however it would be very dangerous to cut corners at such an early stage, both in Haiti and in Ireland."

UNICEF has already begun the process of reuniting children with their families or other caregivers, working in coordination with other key agencies on the ground.

The organisation is also establishing safe spaces for separated children and providing food and supplies for orphanages in Port-au-Prince.

“These children face increased risks of malnutrition and disease, trafficking, sexual exploitation and serious emotional trauma,” said Verwoerd.

“The race to provide them with life-saving emergency food and medicine, safe shelter, protection and care is under way.”

Verwoerd noted that traffickers prey upon vulnerable people, “and what we see in Haiti right now is a very large pool of very vulnerable children”.

Despite the challenges, Verwoerd said: “UNICEF is finding a way, as we always do in these circumstances to do what’s best in terms of protecting children.”

The Prime Minister of Haiti has also assured UNICEF yesterday that the children who left the country in the previous days were legal adoptions, whose files had received due authorisation prior to the earthquake.

He said that a total of 140 children legally departed, 100 to The Netherlands and 40 to France, all of them verified by his office.

More than €410,000 has been donated to UNICEF Ireland in the past week but more donations are urgently needed.

To make a donation to UNICEF Ireland's Emergency Appeal, please visit www.unicef.ie or call 01-878 3000.

UNICEF Ireland is absorbing all administrative fees associated with handling donations so 100% of donations will be used to save children's lives.

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