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Thousands of Children Orphaned or Separated from Their Families in Haiti Earthquake Aftermath

Women’s Refugee Commission urges  these children be provided protection in Haiti while reunification efforts are made

  • Read the press release
  • Read recommendations for the U.S. government to protect children in Haiti developed by the Women's Refugee Commission and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)
  • The following organizations are among the organizations that are working with children in Haiti: International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and UNICEF

The chaotic and devastating aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake has left thousands of children separated from their families. Once the initial relief phase has ended we will likely find that a significant number of these children have been orphaned. United Nations and international relief agencies on the ground in Haiti are partnering to provide protection, food, water, sanitation and medical services to the devastated population.  Equally important, these agencies are conducting registration and tracing to facilitate family reunification where possible and to determine how best to meet the needs of children who are alone.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued guidelines for humanitarian parole for orphans who have been screened, identified for adoption eligibility and were matched with families in the United States before the earthquake. Children who were in the final stages of adoption by American families should be brought to the United States as expeditiously as possible.

The Women’s Refugee Commission applauds the agency’s prompt response and efforts to protect children who were on the eve of an adoption when the crisis hit.

However, the Women’s Refugee Commission has heard numerous accounts of children being removed from Haiti who were not in the final stages of adoption and who do not meet the Department of Homeland Security’s current criteria for evacuation. Such reports are deeply troubling because in many cases they run contrary to the best interest of the children.

Despite a well-intentioned desire to assist children during a time of crisis, protective mechanisms must be established and respected to ensure that children who can be reunited with family are able to do so and that unsafe adoptions and trafficking of children do not occur.

As previous crises have demonstrated, many children who are separated from their families during an emergency are not, in fact, orphans. It can take considerable time before registration and tracing efforts identify and reunite children with their parents. Even if parents are deceased there may be other family members who are willing and able to provide care. Removing children from their communities in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake can further compromise their well-being by leading to unnecessary, permanent separation from their family and support network.

The urge to take action to remove children from a situation like the one in Haiti is understandable. “It’s tempting to want to airlift children out of Haiti, getting them out of harm’s way immediately,” says Michelle Brané, director of detention and asylum program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “But it’s important to remember that in the chaos currently plaguing the country, many thousands of people, including parents and children, are searching for their family. Removing children from countries too quickly after an emergency has been shown to jeopardize family reunification efforts, create additional instability for children and increase the risk that children will fall into the hands of traffickers and other ill-intentioned individuals who have been known to exploit these situations.”

Even before the earthquake, there were many children in Haitian orphanages who were not actually orphans and who maintained close relationships with their families. It is not uncommon for parents or caregivers to send their children to orphanages for better care and security. This only underscores the importance of fully assessing children’s situation and needs before making any placement decisions. According to Brané, “it is generally in the best interest of children to receive services and protection on the ground in Haiti. While it is likely that there will be children in need of loving families in the future, we strongly recommend that in the near term individuals who wish to help the children of Haiti contribute their resources and time to organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and UNICEF, which have proven expertise in meeting child protection needs in a time of crisis.”

The Women’s Refugee Commission recommends that the U.S. government consider the following measures to protect Haitian children:

  • Immediate family reunification services: Priority must be given to child registration, family tracing and family reunification services to reunite children with their parents or customary caregivers.
  • Protection in-country: Foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations and concerned individuals must support the efforts of the United Nations and international organizations to meet the protection needs of children in-country.
  • Temporary Evacuation as a Last Resort: If children must be evacuated out of Haiti because their protection needs cannot be met in-country, the evacuation must be carefully documented, they must be registered with the proper authorities and all efforts must be made to reunify them with family before any adoption proceedings are considered.
  • Children with urgent medical needs: Children with needs that cannot be addressed by the emergency medical care delivery efforts in Haiti should be transported to the U.S. or wherever they are able to access appropriate medical care. Available family members should be allowed to travel with them.
  • Children in mixed family status: There are mixed status families in Haiti in which one or more member has authorization to legally enter the United States but others do not. These families are being forced to choose between leaving their children behind because they lack the proper authorization, or remaining in Haiti. The U.S. must allow mixed status families to enter the United States together.
  • Expedite I-730s for Haitian refugees and asylees: Refugees and asylees in the U.S. have the right to bring a spouse or unmarried children under the age of 21 into the U.S. under the I-730 Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition. This process should be expedited for all Haitian refugees and asylees in the U.S. so that their children and spouses can reach the safety of the U.S. more quickly.
  • Children interdicted at sea: These children should be properly screened, in compliance with international law, to ensure their lives are not in danger if they are returned.