Regular longtime readers of this blog know about E. Benjamin Skinner, a former Team Mead research associate who has gone on to great things. He wrote a book on slavery in the contemporary world, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery, which received the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction. In the course of researching this book, Ben traveled all over the world, meeting modern day slaves and slave traders in Asia, Africa and Europe as well as both North and South America. These days, he’s become very grand. He is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of Harvard Kennedy School, and a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. But his passion for fighting slavery and protecting the poorest and the most vulnerable among us continues, and this is the spirit that inspires the guest post below.
Ben’s first encounter with the realities of contemporary slavery came when he went to Haiti some years ago and negotiated the purchase of a young child from one of the traffickers who exploit the desperation of poor parents to ‘place’ children in homes where they are forced to work as domestic servants, beaten and abused in many other ways. Over the years he came to understand how widespread this practice is, and how deeply rooted it is in the poverty and inequality of Haitian life. The recent earthquake in Haiti not only created orphans; it has brought many more families into the destitution and hopelessness that can make placing ones child in the hands of strangers and hoping for the best seem like the only option. Ben’s reflection on the misadventures of the Americans detained in Haiti for child trafficking share one of my frequent concerns on this blog: the degree to which good intentions so often go horribly wrong when fools rush in.
In the weeks after the January 12 earthquake, anonymous Americans saved many lives. Keziah Furth, a 24-year-old Bostonian, had been volunteering with Angel Missions Haiti as a nurse to homeless Haitians for months before the quake. Despite barely having enough aspirin let alone sophisticated medical equipment, she had the skills and dedication to save dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives in the makeshift refugee camp near her Port-au-Prince clinic. Among those she saved, as I wrote about in Time, was someone who once saved my own life.
Of course Kez’s work, and the work of thousands of other well-trained American health care workers, military personnel and disaster specialists now in Haiti, no longer makes headlines. Predictably, the fool’s errand of the Baptist missionaries from Idaho has instead consumed the post-earthquake news cycle. On January 29, that group tried to smuggle 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. Laura Silsby, their doe-eyed leader, claimed the children were orphans. The Associated Press now reports that all had living parents.
But for the media, these clowns fit the stereotype of the American do-gooding rubes, guided by God, unruffled by facts. They are a corny sideshow at a time when the main event seems far too depressing to watch. For the rest of us, there are some inconvenient but vital truths uncovered by their actions.
Firstly, there is no indication that the Baptists intended to enslave the children, but they leveraged the social isolation and withering poverty that enable human traffickers—those who recruit, transport or harbor slaves—to lure their human prey in Haiti. Prior to the earthquake, there were some 225,000 child slaves in Haiti, forced into domestic servitude, for no pay beyond subsistence. Without a concerted international effort, that slave population will grow in the wake of the disaster.
As I wrote about in A Crime So Monstrous, I was once offered a 12-year-old girl for domestic and sexual slavery in broad daylight in Port-au-Prince. The price was $50. The trafficker told me that he could easily convince parents to send their children from the grossly underdeveloped highlands of southern Haiti. It was from a similar vineyard that the missionaries harvested children from vulnerable parents. I did not pay for human life in Haiti or anywhere else. Unlike Silsby, I did not want to break apart families.
Secondly, their one-time legal advisor, Jorge Puello, a man with an Interpol warrant for his arrest on human trafficking charges, served as a reminder that the crime of modern-day slavery is not limited to Haiti. A native New Yorker, Puello is charged with luring girls from Nicaragua and forcing them into prostitution in El Salvador. In fact, human trafficking plagues every country, and today there are more slaves worldwide than at any point in human history.
Finally, the Baptists once more showed that simple fixes to complex humanitarian problems rarely work. Prior to the quake, Silsby had aspirations to build an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, but hadn’t even purchased the property. Nonetheless, when the quake hit, she sent emails across the country, drawing together a team with no knowledge of Haiti, and clearly no respect for its legal institutions. Their stated goal was to “save” Haitian children, even if that meant imitating human traffickers to lure the children from their parents, then working with shady operators who offered to bribe officials in order to spirit them from the country. “Our hearts were in the right place,” Silsby told The New York Times after her arrest. Their heads were another matter.
Americans with their heads in the right place, former president Bill Clinton for example, understand that the only sustainable interventions involve helping Haitians help themselves. The United States has spearheaded the relief effort, leading donations that now top $1 billion. While that is less than 10% of what the Inter-American Development Bank estimates will be needed to rebuild Haiti, it will go a long way toward recovery if invested in the right way.
One faith-based American NGO that gets it right is Beyond Borders. This top-rated organization has over three decades of experience in Haitian child protection, and focuses on strengthening communities, not separating families. I spent months studying their partner Limye Lavi’s work to prevent children from entering child slavery. It’s painstaking and effective, and involves working to provide the rural education that the Haitian government has promised but never delivered. Currently, Beyond Borders is desperately trying to raise the funds to purchase 425 festival tents—at a cost of some $500,000—to replace the destroyed school houses of some 10,000 rural students.
With the rainy season looming, Haitian children need those tents. They can do without the circus offered by Silsby and her ilk.
[ Photo courtesy of Free the Slaves ]