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The blame for Haiti's child trafficking rests with us

By Melati Lum - posted Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Laying blame on Haiti to end its own problem with trafficking of children and child sexual slavery ignores the root causes of trafficking of children worldwide: demand from wealthy western, usually male, customers.

It has been argued that Haiti has no right to admonish on child trafficking when it has long allowed child slavery within its own borders. While it is true that child slavery must be stamped out through the development of effective laws and punishments, merely drawing attention to Haiti’s inability to control the problem does not recognise the major contribution we, from industrialised countries, have on promoting trade in children.

Economically, the greatest factor in promoting child sex trafficking and sexual exploitation worldwide is the increasing demand for younger and younger victims. This demand mainly comes from wealthy male customers of the growing global sex industry.


Recently ten Americans were arrested and accused in Haiti of child trafficking and kidnapping. It was not the first time westerners have been implicated in shady dealings with children in troubled Haiti. In 2008, Canadian Armand Huard, 65, dubbed “Father Teresa” by Association Grandir, the humanitarian group for which he volunteered was sentenced to three years imprisonment for sexually assaulting young Haitian boys in an orphanage, while another Canadian, Denis Rochefort, 59, was sentenced to two years.

These convictions and the recent arrest of fellow Canadian Reverend John Duarte on charges of sexual assault of underage boys in Port-au-Prince have raised questions on whether industrialised countries are doing enough to protect against sex tourism in their missions.

It is estimated that more than 1 million children are exploited in the global sex trade. When major disasters occur such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, traffickers make the most of the chaos, poverty, and desperation abounding in the aftermath to abduct children and force them into slavery or prostitution.

Many children in the global sex trade are exploited by sex tourists seeking anonymity and impunity in foreign countries. The major flow of child sex tourists are adult males who come from developed countries in Western Europe, the US, Australia, Scandinavian Countries, and the Gulf, to poorer countries in South-East Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Recent reports estimate that 25 per cent of all sex tourists are Americans. Yet that figure varies depending on the location as 80 per cent of sex tourists in Costa Rica, and 38 per cent of sex tourists in Cambodia are American. Australia and Japan are two other major source countries for sex tourists, fuelling the demand for young children - especially young girls.

Child trafficking and child sex tourism are multi-billion dollar industries attracting organised crime networks and encouraging corruption. Additionally, many poverty-stricken countries rely on sex tourism as a steady source of income and have a vested interest in maintaining existing conditions. A recent International Labour Organization (ILO) report estimated that the “sex sector” accounts for 2 to 14 per cent of national income in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Up to half of that revenue is generated by child sex tourism.


Indeed many countries including Australia have developed laws and national action plans against child sex tourism and trafficking of human beings. Under Australian child sex tourism laws, Australians may be prosecuted at home for engaging in sexual activity while outside of Australia with children under the age of 16. The laws provide for severe penalties of up to 17 years of imprisonment for such acts, and there have been a number of convictions over the years with significant jail sentences. The US has also established laws that make it illegal for its citizens and residents to travel to another country to have sex with a minor.

However, even with such laws in place, western customers’ demands for children continue to increase, creating pressure to supply more children in the global sex trade. Sex tourists hide behind ignorance of local laws and customs, or their misguided beliefs that they actually benefit the children as their money goes towards providing food and necessities. With this deluded mindset, sex tourists will continue to justify their actions and feel good about themselves as a bonus.

The global child sex trade is a growing and disturbing problem. Establishing laws in any particular country is not enough to make the problem go away. International demand for children by wealthy consumers, as the root cause of child trafficking needs to be addressed and adequately dealt with. Our own contribution to the situation in creating demand must not be overlooked.

A strong, continuous, and co-ordinated commitment against child trafficking and prostitution needs to be made globally by governments, law enforcement agencies, and all sectors of civil society in order to combat this horrific phenomenon in Haiti and other impoverished countries.

Merely shifting the blame towards countries from which children are sourced will do little towards resolving the issue.

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About the Author

Melati Lum is a lawyer specialising in international humanitarian and human rights law. She has recently completed a Master of Laws (Public International Law) from the University of London.

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