Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees

Haitian Trafficking Victims Discovered in Ecuador

Gonzalo Ortiz

QUITO, Apr 14 2011 (IPS) - The four young Haitians told legal authorities that they were offered complete scholarships to the university, but that once they reached Ecuador they were locked up in a house and made to pay 150 dollars a month for rent and board, while given the run around about the promised education.

“Deceived with the prospect of free university studies, 30 people between the ages of 18 and 23, one aged 17 and two aged 28 came from Haiti and were kept locked up in a house in the Consejo Provincial neighbourhood in the extreme north of Quito, some since November 2010,” a member of the migration police present at the legal hearing on the case, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IPS.

The Jesuit Service for Refugees and Migrants in Ecuador (SJRM), which found out about the situation from its contacts among Haitians living in Quito, alerted the police in February, and a Haitian family who ran the house as a de facto prison were arrested.

Apparently all of the young people have relatives in the United States or Canada, which was in fact one of the requisites for selection for the supposed scholarship programme, back in Port-au-Prince.

With great difficulty, their families pulled together the money to pay for the tickets for the trip that took the young people from Havana to Panama City to Quito, plus “a one-time registration fee of 300 dollars.”

But once they got to Quito, they were imprisoned and extorted in different ways, to get their families in North America to send the required 150 dollars a month.

Although some of the Haitians were held since November, most arrived in December and January.

“The hearing was held Friday April 8 in the prosecutor’s office in (the northern province of) Pichincha, and the investigation is ongoing,” Juan Villalobos, with the SJRM, told IPS.

The case, which has received little attention in Ecuador, “is extremely serious,” Jesuit priest Fernando Ponce, the director of the SJRM in Ecuador, told IPS.

He said the trafficking of persons should not be treated with indifference by society.

This case is only one of a number of instances of trafficking of Haitians to South America in the last three years or so.

Edson Louidor, SJRM regional coordinator of advocacy and communication for Latin America and the Caribbean, said that in 2009, there were an estimated 75,000 Haitians in the region, but the number “has climbed fast since then.”

Louidor, who is himself from Haiti, told IPS that while precise figures are not available, “there are constant flows of Haitian migrants towards” South America, and the main entry points are Ecuador and Chile.

According to SJRM statistics, 392 Haitians reached Chile in 2008, 477 in 2009, 820 in 2010, and 125 in January 2011 alone. As for Ecuador, 1,258 Haitian immigrants entered the country in 2009, 1,687 in 2010 and 1,112 in the first quarter of this year.

However, not all of them stay. The SJRM estimates that the Haitian community in Ecuador numbers over 1,000 people. Of that total, 390 were granted an amnesty by the government of Rafael Correa after Haiti was devastated by the January 2010 earthquake that left a death toll of over 300,000.

The 390 Haitians were given legal immigration status and were allowed to bring their families to Ecuador.

Louidor explained that the destination that the Haitian immigrants are trying to reach is not Ecuador or Chile. “Their final goal has always been to reach French Guiana, and head to France or to the United States,” he said.

“The Haitians who came to Ecuador in 2009 went on to Venezuela through Colombia to try to reach French Guiana. But since the earthquake last year, these immigration routes have become more complicated,” he said.

The closure of the borders of French Guiana, an overseas region of France, and the stiffening of U.S. immigration policies have diverted the flow of migrants, to Brazil for example, a country reached by 1,200 to 2,000 Haitians who crossed the border by Amazon jungle routes, Louidor said.

They travel from Ecuador to Brazil, through Iquitos and Madre de Dios in Peru’s northern jungle, or through the highlands and then the Yungas forest region of Bolivia.

“They also try to fly from Chile to Venezuela by plane, and use other transit countries like the Dominican Republic or Cuba,” he added.

An estimated two million Haitians live in the United States, between 500,000 and 750,000 in the Dominican Republic, some 400,000 in Cuba, 200,000 in Canada, 100,000 in France and another 100,000 in the French Antilles, besides the much smaller groups already mentioned in South America.

“For that reason, remittances are still the main source of income in Haiti,” which has an estimated population of 8.5 million, Loudoir said. “In 2010 remittances totalled two billion dollars – much more than the international aid for the earthquake, which amounted to 500 million dollars.”

Ponce said “the SJRM is concerned about the worsening of the humanitarian situation in Haiti, which is forcing people to leave the country,” and about the incapacity of the Haitian government and the international community to respond to the Haitian people’s needs.

Louidor concurred, saying “to this you have to add the slow pace of reconstruction in Haiti, which has fuelled the activities of trafficking networks.”

These networks lure in young trafficking victims in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and toughened immigration policies have driven up the risks and made victims even more vulnerable, he said.

The SJRM has urged the governments of Latin America to provide a humanitarian response to the plight of Haitian migrants, by granting them humanitarian visas, for example. “Deportation is inhumane in a situation like the one Haiti is experiencing,” Louidor said.

In addition, given cases like the one that was recently discovered in Quito, “a regional network should be created to fight the trafficking of Haitians, making a distinction between perpetrators and victims, and punishing the perpetrators while protecting the victims,” Ponce said.

The SJRM “works with civil society organisations and other bodies that can help protect and assist trafficking victims,” he noted.

“In sheer numbers, the figures might look small, but it is a worrisome situation, because this is a population that is not deportable but whose immigration status is hard to regularise,” the priest said.

“The Ecuadorian government has given assurances that the Haitians won’t be deported because of the situation their country is in. But the new immigration law does not offer viable solutions for this population group,” Ponce added.

Lack of work, limited language skills in Spanish and lack of support networks put Haitian immigrants in a much more difficult position than Peruvian or Colombian immigrants, for instance, making them more vulnerable, he said.

He said the SJRM has set up a school to teach the Haitian immigrants Spanish, and is providing them with legal assistance and helping facilitate the insertion of their children into the educational system. “Ecuador must not be a xenophobic country, a country of discrimination,” he said.

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