Haiti, home of a million orphans

Before the earthquake hit, Haiti had 380,000 children without parents. That number may rise to one million, leading to trafficking.

The deaths of parents crushed under rubble could see the number of orphans double. Aid workers estimate there could be a million homeless children.
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PORT-AU-PRINCE // Only a month old and already close to death, doctors feeding an emaciated baby with powdered milk through a plastic syringe fear the infant now ranks among Haiti's rapidly-growing number of orphans.

The boy's mother turned up at the makeshift clinic at an earthquake-struck orphanage just one hour earlier. The woman, in her early 20s, appeared agitated, told doctors she could no longer care for her child and departed, leaving behind a bag of baby clothes. "The child is very sick and she has no way to care for it," said Sujan Joshi, 30, inserting an intravenous drip to rehydrate the malnourished infant.

"She probably thought it would be better for the child to leave him here." Haiti had 380,000 orphans even before the 7.0-magnitude quake of January 12 and several powerful aftershocks toppled buildings, leaving as many as 300,000 dead and many more homeless and jobless. The deaths of parents crushed under rubble could see the number of orphans double, while some aid workers fear the island will have to look after as many as one million children - a sizeable chunk of Haiti's 9.6-million population.

All 55 residents of La Maison du Bonheur, a Salvation Army orphanage and school in Port-au-Prince, managed to flee the 24-room complex as the quake tore cracks through ceilings and sent walls tumbling down. Some lost their parents when storms ravaged their northern town of Gonaïves in 2004; others had been abandoned by parents too poor to care for them or who had fled the gang violence that has ravaged the country for years. Many had lost only one parent but still lacked the care they need in this vulnerable nation where 80 per cent of people live in poverty.

After the earthquake, carers pulled mattresses and food from the unstable buildings, tying sheets to trees for shelter from the tropical sun. They struggled with limited supplies but global relief efforts have started to reach those who desperately need it. Most children left the disaster zone to stay with aunts, uncles and other relatives in provincial towns, with the US-based Heartbeat Mission setting up a field hospital in the compound to nurse broken limbs and festering wounds.

Patients collect white counters bearing red numbers to mark their place in the hospital queue, listening to the groans of quake victims laid out on canvas beds. Four-year-old Ketsia Joseph was oblivious to the misery and desperation surrounding her, wearing a dirt-stained track suit and strolling around the orphanage grounds, chatting with friends and sucking a boiled sweet. She was rescued from an "emotionally unstable" family home in November, where her mother and grandmother were unable to care for the infant following her father's death, said Bob Poff, 55, who runs the complex in Delmas, a central district of Haiti's capital. Carers plan to help arrange her adoption through an American family, fearing she will become institutionalised by a childhood spent in this orphanage-cum-school.

Aid workers expect that a massive spike in the number of orphans will create its own pressing humanitarian problem: should Haitian children be adopted by foreign families or stay in their home country? Jets are already arrivng at Haiti's main international airport ready to fill up with orphans for adoption overseas, raising fears of a free-for-all in which would-be parents can adopt without the usual safety checks.

Planeloads of children have already left for the United States and the Netherlands and France, raising fears of fast-track adoptions like those following the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 and the previous year's Indian Ocean tsunami. A group of 33 Haiti children were expected to meet their adoptive French families yesterday, after being flown out of the capital, while another 55 landed in the US on Tuesday.

"We are watching this with a great deal of discomfort," said Christopher de Bono, from the UN children's agency, Unicef. "There are at least tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of children in Port-au-Prince, in Haiti, who currently need urgent help. And they need that help in Haiti. "They don't need to be plucked out of the country and taken away," he said. Aid agencies have reported a flood of phone calls from families hoping to adopt children, but cautioned against moving youngsters from the country before they can be registered to determine whether they have any surviving family members.

"We remain focused on family unification and must be vigilant not to separate children from relatives in Haiti who are still alive but displaced, or to unknowingly assist criminals who traffic in children in such desperate times," said Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the US department of homeland security. Catholic leaders and immigrant groups in Florida are urging that thousands of children be airlifted to their state. The plan is similar one that was carried out in 1960 called "Operation Pedro Pan", in which some 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children were brought to the United States.

"The possibility of a child being mistakenly labelled as an orphan during this time is incredibly high," warned a spokesman for Save the Children, an international advocacy group. "Only once the family tracing effort has been exhausted and it is determined that children cannot be reunited, and after proper screening, should international adoption be considered." The Salvation Army in Haiti has long sought to keep orphans in the Caribbean island, saying families overseas should sponsor the education of youngsters in Port-au-Prince.

"Adoption is a legitimate alternative for many children - it may be the only alternative. We have a few such cases for whom there are no family members to link children with," said Mr Poff. "But we feel family is such an important element, and prefer to keep families as linked as possible and provide support services around that." Chimane Chatelier, who lived at the Haitian capital's orphanage from the age of five and now teaches its young resident to sew, describes her life in Haiti as "OK by me" and cautions against sending kids abroad.

"It's better for Haitian families to adopt the children because they are already used to the country and the language and it makes for a better family environment," she said. As agencies weigh up whether Haiti's earthquake orphans would be better off growing up in their native country or benefit from the opportunities available in a western nation, one infant was spared an uncertain fate. Crying and complaining she could still not care for her sickly child, the young mother returned to the hospital hours after her abrupt departure.

"She still doesn't know what to do," said Mr Joshi. "She has no food or the means to care for this baby. But she came back." jreinl@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Steven Stanek, foreign correspondent, from Washington, DC