As Hurricane Matthew hurtled towards Haiti last Tuesday, my team and I were hoping the storm would change trajectory or lose some of its force before it made landfall. But we prepared for the worst. We have been working in Haiti for nearly two years, helping the government of a country slowly recovering from the 2010 earthquake – that devastated cities and rural areas and decimated the population – to make it possible for all children to live with families.
Following the earthquake, the number of orphanages in Haiti rose by 700%, which might seem an understandable response to such a disaster that had, surely, created many orphans. Indeed, many children had lost their parents but, as in most communities around the world facing this kind of loss, many orphans were predominantly taken in by extended families. Still, the well-meaning foreign donors and volunteers came and built orphanages which went on to attract children from poor families or those that could not access education or food. By 2015 there were approximately 760 orphanages housing more than 32,000 children, 80% of whom had at least one living parent.
As we worked together with the government to close three orphanages with terrible conditions, our research and practice found shocking patterns of behaviour. Whilst some orphanages are established with the best of intentions, striving to do their best for children, many in Haiti are profit-making enterprises that traffic children and treat them as commodities, as highlighted in a recent Lumos report.
When the hurricane hit, we were thankful that our team and the children and families we work with were all safe. Immediately we began assisting the government’s child protection department and aid agencies to protect children separated from their families in Port-au-Prince. And gradually, the picture of the real impact in the south of the country began to emerge: three cities flattened, more than 900 dead, at least 500,000 people lost their homes and livelihoods. Mass hunger is imminent if aid does not reach them soon. There is no drinking water, so cholera is likely to surge once more.
The government, UN and aid agencies are coordinating a massive relief effort to reach those affected as quickly as possible. At Lumos, we are planning to assist one of the hardest to reach groups: children living in orphanages before the hurricane hit and those separated from their families during the crisis. We know that traffickers take advantage of post-disaster chaos to target the most vulnerable children, so we are coordinating with the government’s Anti-trafficking Committee on an urgent prevention strategy, learning from the lessons of the Nepal earthquake last year, where coordinated efforts rescued hundreds of children from traffickers.
But we also know that many good people will want to help and there is likely to be an increased interest in volunteering in Haiti. So we are raising awareness of the harm caused by well-intentioned individuals and donors travelling to Haiti to establish or work in orphanages. What Haiti needs instead is the support that will make it possible for all children to stay with families. Providing emergency supplies of food, water, shelter and medical care are essential right now. Rebuilding health and education systems, providing income generation schemes, rebuilding homes and livelihoods will all be needed in the medium term. And a child protection system to identify vulnerable children and ensure they are properly cared for is crucial. Building and working in orphanages is not the answer and is likely only to exacerbate the problem further.
If you want to help Haiti recover from Hurricane Matthew, here is what you can do:
Support the UN and aid agency efforts to provide emergency relief to the families affected
Support Lumos’ emergency response to protect the most vulnerable children separated from families and to prevent trafficking of children
Raise awareness of the risks involved in voluntourism and working in orphanages
If you want to volunteer in Haiti, do your research and find a non-profit that works on family strengthening, income generation or other community-based responses that genuinely empower Haitian communities and families.
As an international community, we must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. If we keep driving children away from their families, if our good intentions continue to be misused by those bent on making a profit from children, we are doomed to a cycle of family separation, child exploitation and fractured communities. It is our duty to provide the people of Haiti with the assistance they really need, enabling them to keep their children safe and assisting them to rebuild strong, resilient families and communities able to weather any future storm.