Haitian children turn to begging in DR after quake

Published August 9, 2010

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – From the white-sand beaches at the edge of all-inclusive resorts to the gritty streets of the capital, more Haitian children are begging on the streets of the Dominican Republic — a sign that the economic gulf between the neighboring nations has grown wider since the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Haitian children, some believed to be brought by traffickers, roam the fruit stands and dangerous medians, collecting pesos from passers-by as they dart through smoggy traffic. No one knows how many, but their presence has grown by the dozens over the past six months, aid groups say.

"They are vulnerable to all kinds of dangers in the streets," said Maria Elena Asaud, a UNICEF child-protection expert in the Dominican Republic.

Those dangers include being abused, forced into prostitution and exploited by traffickers for their begging wages.

The Jan. 12 earthquake killed an estimated 300,000 people and displaced more than 2 million more. Many of those who survived fled to the countryside or tent encampments around the capital, but the nearby Dominican Republic has always been a powerful economic lure.

While Haiti was ripped apart by political upheaval over the past three decades, the Dominican Republic opened its shores to tourists and its finances to Washington-based multilateral institutions.

Haitians for decades have sought opportunity working on the streets, sugar plantations and tourist resorts of the Dominican Republic, risking discrimination and sometimes violence.

An estimated 9,000 Haitians have migrated across the border since the earthquake, increasing the Haitian-born population by 15 percent to an estimated 600,000, said Sigfrido Pared, the country's immigration director.

On a busy median in the capital, three Haitian brothers — Luigi, Wilchy and Aldry — smiled to passers-by and stuck out their hands asking for a few pesos. They sometimes run into traffic to look for change from the open windows of stopped cars, the drivers blaring Latin rhythms of bachata and reggaeton.

The boys did not give their last name and were reluctant to tell strangers about their lives.

Luigi, who gave his age as 7, said they came from Port-au-Prince after the earthquake destroyed their home and killed their father. They crossed the porous border with their mother as she found work selling avocados.

When AP journalists visited them over several days, they sometimes looked clean and well cared-for, other times filthy from the tops of their heads to their plastic sandals.

"I want to go back to Haiti, so I can go to school," Luigi said.

Those working in the north-coast beach areas can earn nearly $14 per day among the tourists — nearly three times Haiti's minimum wage.

Those areas were also cited as hotspots of child prostitution and sex tourism in a 2010 U.S. State Department report on human trafficking. A local group called the Coalition for Children found a third of the 53 child beggars it interviewed this year in the country's center and north are taken to the streets by alleged child traffickers.

"It's so terrible: The kids sleep on the streets, take showers on the street, take drugs," said Maria Josefina Paulino, director of International Self-Development Solidarity, which runs programs to keep children from prostitution.

The children are likely bought or traded along the countries' lawless border, where contraband and drugs flow easily over unguarded desert, said Davide Sala, a migrants-rights advocate with the Jesuit Refugee and Migration Service.

The Dominican National Childhood Council established a program after the quake to remove children from the streets. So far, it has taken in 102 minors and returned half to their families in Haiti. The rest are in shelters as authorities try to locate relatives, said manager Angel Luis Alvarez.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic — each with just under 10 million people — share Hispaniola, an island divided in colonial times by the Spanish and French empires. Both imported African slaves and kept them under some of the most brutal conditions in the hemisphere. An independent Haiti invaded the Spanish-speaking side of the island in 1822 and occupied it for 22 years.

Dominican leaders have fostered anti-Haitian sentiment to consolidate their control, contributing to decades of violence and discrimination against Haitians. Even Dominican-born people of Haitian descent are barred from gaining citizenship.

But the quake devastation prompted an unprecedented level of good will toward their poorer neighbor: For a time, the Dominican Republic was the staging ground for much of the aid pouring into Haiti. Dominican President Leonel Fernandez made his first visit next door in half a decade.

Those warm feelings could diminish as Dominicans see Haitians they deem "ungrateful" for their aid stream into their country, Sala said.

"There was a feeling that the help given to Haiti (after the earthquake) was supposed to erase the past," he said.

The high visibility of the children on the street could exacerbate tensions among those who feel relations have gotten too cozy over the past few months, he added.

In Santo Domingo, children — both Dominican and Haitian — are also employed as street vendors, shoe shiners, prostitutes and drug dealers.

In Santiago, some of the children clean windshields, shine shoes or work on farms but most just beg, said Cynthia Lora, whose group, Street Action, is trying to start a program that will allow some of them to attend school. The kids who ask for money in the streets often get some, she said.

"For now, after the quake, people in Santiago are sensitive" to the plight of victims, Lora said. "They aren't really conscious of the fact that these kids are victims of trafficking or exploitation."

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Ezequiel Abiu Lopez reported from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Jonathan M. Katz reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Written by EZEQUIEL ABIU LOPEZ and JONATHAN M. KATZ, Associated Press Writers

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