BOGOTA (AlertNet) - When authorities from the Dominican Republic raided several houses in a poor residential neighbourhood last year in the capital city Santo Domingo, they found 44 children crammed in rooms, some sitting on the floor, others huddled under beds, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
After the raid, 22 of the children were identified as victims of child trafficking, and this month two child traffickers received 15-year prison sentences for the smuggling, trafficking and labour exploitation of Haitian children after a historic trial.
It is the first time Haitian traffickers have been jailed in the Dominican Republic for trafficking children, IOM said in a statement.
“Parents were convinced their children were being taken for a better life in Santo Domingo and even to Miami,” IOM spokesperson Zoe Stopak-Behr told AlertNet, adding that all the money the children earned was taken by their traffickers.
IOM returned the children to their families in Haiti, and also provided technical support and training to local state prosecutors during the trial, she added.
"The Dominicans had been criticised for some time now for not bringing many trafficking cases to trial," Stopak-Behr said.
“The conviction is extremely important for prevention. It shows that there is a penalty for trafficking and that the Dominican authorities are working. We hope it will have a preventative effect and help stop the constant flow of children into the Dominican Republic.”
At least 2,000 Haitian children were trafficked across the porous and poorly controlled border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2009, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Haitian children are a frequent sight on the streets of Santo Domingo, and are often seen begging, shoe shining and washing car windscreens at traffic lights.
Thousands of Haitian child domestic servants – known in Haitian Creole as “restaveks” - are also thought to be working in the Dominican Republic, according to IOM.
UNPOL, the U.N. Police Division, says it has stepped up patrols along the 366 km (227 mile) border to combat child trafficking, a problem that worsened following the massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, according to both UNICEF and IOM.
The disaster left hundreds of thousands of families homeless and pushed countless more Haitians into extreme poverty, forcing more families to send their children to Haiti’s wealthier Caribbean neighbour in search of work and a better life.
“The number of cases of child victims of trafficking identified has most certainly increased since the 2010 earthquake,” Stopak-Behr said.
“It’s impossible to determine whether this is due to an actual increase of human trafficking or just the result of greater attention and training on the subject,” she added.
(Editing by Julie Mollins)