In February reporters and photographers from El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald began investigating claims that children were routinely smuggled from Haiti into the Dominican Republic, a long-standing problem that became an epidemic following the earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people in January.
The journalists persuaded traffickers to talk — if we did not use their names. We agreed as a last resort because we felt it was important to get the story out. We verified their stories, often via aid groups that work to persuade traffickers to quit the trade and get the children off the streets. The reporters also worked to verify the stories given to us by children by talking to relatives, caregivers and church groups.
A second hurdle entailed trying to put a figure to the smuggling. Our journalists used a 2002 UNICEF report that focused on the scale of the problem as a guidepost. They interviewed non-governmental organizations that investigate trafficking claims, talked to religious organizations, the governments of both countries, a UNICEF child protection specialist and examined U.S. State Department reports.
One NGO — Jano Sikse Border Network (RFJS), which monitors human smuggling 10 border points — keeps a monthly head count, which tallied about 7,320 children “illegally trafficked” through September. In 2009, the RFJS tallied 900 kids for the year. Spotters eyeball kids being taken by river, land and bridge with no identification. Astonishingly, one RFJS worker said traffickers often allow him to count kids.
The RFJS reported 1,575 cases in January, right after the quake, and the numbers continued to increase, until July when only 32 cases were reported, but the figures are back on the rise, with 195 cases reported in September.
Another NGO — Heartland Alliance Haiti — screens children who may be potential victims of smuggling at four border crossings. Between April and September, Heartland screened more than 12,500 children and 21 percent traveled unaccompanied or with other children.
The governments of both countries don’t keep figures on children and acknowledged there is scant political will to tighten its borders. Christina Torsein, UNICEF child-protection specialist, said prior to this year, an average of 2,000 Haitian children were trafficked annually, and not just to the Dominican Republic.