While Salvation Army aid workers and volunteers have loaded, unloaded, and handed out millions of meals to combat the rampant hunger plaguing Haitians, these boxes of food contain another form of aid less obvious than the nourishing beans and rice they hold.
Haiti is a nation chronically plagued by extreme poverty and lack of just law enforcement, leaving citizens vulnerable to all sorts of threats both physical and abstract. But with these existing circumstances being further exacerbated by last month’s earthquake, conditions are ripe for Haiti’s already substantial human trafficking problem to increase exponentially. To combat the issue, The Salvation Army is mounting an anti-trafficking awareness campaign advertised even on the food Haitians are eating! Through food labels and fliers, we are trying to educate as many people as possible on the dangers of and ways to prevent human trafficking from breeding during the earthquake’s aftermath and in their communities long term. Though trafficking may be a less visible threat than starvation or dehydration, it is certainly no less dangerous.
The Salvation Army has actually been working for years to educate Haitians against trafficking, teaching prevention awareness to the 14,000 students enrolled in our schools across the country, to families to help them prevent losing their children, to young adults so that they are not deceived by scams luring them with false promises of lucrative work abroad.
In fact, Haiti’s human trafficking problem is so serious that the U.S. State Department denoted the country as a ‘special’ case in their 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report. Though some estimates report a quarter million children are trafficked every year in the country, accurate numbers are difficult to pinpoint. The Report discusses factors that contribute to Haiti’s inability to address the issue (for more detailed background, read about Haiti in the 2009 Trafficking Report here):
“The Government of Haiti’s ability to provide basic services and security for citizens, and to control rampant crime in the capital, Port-au-Prince, continues to be compromised by limited resources, an untrained and poorly equipped police force, entrenched government corruption, and perennially weak government institutions… Haiti remains a Special Case for the fourth consecutive year as the new government formed in September 2008 has not yet been able to address the significant challenges facing the country, including human trafficking. .. Haitian law also does not specifically prohibit trafficking in persons, which limits its ability to punish traffickers and protect victims.”
But after working with Sri Lankan communities devastated by the 2005 tsunami, Director of Special Projects for The Salvation Army World Service Office’s (SAWSO) Lt. Col. Helen Starrett said The Salvation Army realized there needed to be an immediate response following catastrophic disasters to prevent human trafficking. From this conviction came the idea to print and attach warning labels on food for Haitians, a sure way to spread information to as many people as possible. With the help of American volunteers, 500,000 labels printed in English and Creole have been placed on distributed meals provided by Numana and packaging of beans and rice rations. The human-trafficking alert has also been printed on 5,000 fliers that are displayed in clinics, schools, and shelters around Port-au-Prince, and large posters are brandished on Salvation Army water towers. They read:
BE ALERT! WATCH FOR SCAMS!
NO ONE can force you to work or have sex.
1. Beware of people offering jobs in foreign countries.
2. Beware of people offering money, food, shelter, or drugs in exchange for sex.
3. Know where your children are.
4. Know who your children are with.
5. Be cautious of sending your children away. Be sure a VERY trusted relative or friend goes with them.
6. If you are threatened or being controlled seek help from the nearest Salvation Army Comfort Center.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
Numana will begin printing the warning messages directly on food packaging starting with the next meal distribution so that labels will not need to be added.
Lt. Col. Starrett says Salvation Army personnel in Haiti also have a one page sheet of information regarding signs of and prevention tools for human trafficking so that they may remain vigilant among the population of Haitians with which they work every day. Serving as lead agency for some 20,000 displaced Haitians temporarily housed in a soccer arena and plaza in Port-au-Prince, The Salvation Army is tasked with registering the occupants. Not only does this help with receiving food and aid supplies from the UN, it also enables disaster workers to keep track of children and vulnerable individuals, helping to ensure that they are accounted for.
The campaign is also intended to educate Haitians so they are empowered to police and protect themselves. Lt. Col. Starrett says that while other organizations are working to combat human trafficking in Haiti, she believes The Salvation Army’s long standing history and involvement in the area (we’ve been present in Haiti since 1950 and have 700 personnel permanently stationed there) has given us a “great capacity to have eyes that other organizations might not have,” meaning in addition to our first hand experience with the country, there is also a trust held by Haitians through their relationship with The Salvation Army that allows them to feel more comfortable bringing forth information about suspicious circumstances possibly related to human trafficking.
In addition to increasing awareness, providing alternative solutions is also integral in the fight against trafficking since desperation for survival may sometimes overshadow what is moral. And The Salvation Army does provide a positive alternative through the millions of meals that we have and will continue to distribute in order to sustain individuals and families, as well as other forms of aid and services that are provided through our disaster workers and full time personnel living in Haiti. This includes offering education in our schools, providing medical assistance in our clinics, and giving guidance through spiritual counseling and worship services.
Lt. Col. Starrett recognized that the problem is not a simple open and closed case, saying, “As long as there is evil in the world, we are going to have human trafficking…” Of course, her observation was not one of defeat, but rather a reason to persevere all the harder in the mission to combat the problem. She continued, “But we’re going to do our very best to help as many people as we possibly can.”
For more information on what The Salvation Army is doing to prevent human trafficking, visit our national website.