Georgette Mulheir: Enable Development by Ending Dictatorship

As the world reels from the ongoing impact of Covid-19, the violent attack on the US Capitol and Myanmar succumbing to military rule once more, Haiti’s descent into dictatorship – aided by state-sponsored violence to subdue dissent – went largely unnoticed.  In recent days, however, the world has begun to take notice of the humanitarian and political crisis that has been brewing for the past two years. Georgette Mulheir, a global expert on children’s rights and international development, is working tirelessly to alert the international community to the unfolding crisis in Haiti. As a spokesperson for a new global campaign, Defend Haiti’s Democracy, Georgette Mulheir is urging global leaders to take urgent action.

“Few people outside Haiti know that the country’s democracy was born from a repudiation of slavery”, Mulheir asserts. “The people rose up against their enslavement by colonial powers, to create the world’s first Independent Black Republic. But centuries of illegal occupation by foreign powers and crippling debt – reparations paid to France for the ‘losses’ they suffered when slavery ended – were followed by decades of dictatorship and failed political leadership.”

The thirty-year rule of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier was one of the most brutal and corrupt dictatorships of the modern era, with the infamous Tonton Macoute a synonym for state-sponsored violence to suppress dissent.  By the time Haiti emerged from that crisis, it was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

A nascent democracy was devastated by the earthquake on the 12th of January, 2010. The international community made grand promises to help Haiti recover. But mismanagement of aid and an incoherent international community response means little real progress was made.  Even worse, a culture of impunity among aid personnel culminated in a scandal that left international aid organisations reeling.  Immediately following the earthquake, aid workers employed by Oxfam to protect the population, were instead exploiting children and women, forcing them to have sex in exchange for aid.

And when the UN sent peacekeepers to help the country rebuild following the earthquake, mismanagement of the sewage system at their headquarters led to the first cholera outbreak in Haiti’s history.  Several hundred thousand people became sick and an estimated 10,000 died of the disease.  The UN finally apologised in 2016.

It was in this context of huge social challenges on the ground, coupled with a justifiable suspicion of foreign intervention among Haitian people, that Georgette Mulheir first started to work in Haiti.  She was asked by the Director of the government’s child protection department to help them put together a programme for vulnerable children and families.

At that time, Haiti had an estimated 800 orphanages, housing upwards of 30,000 children.  Most people imagined that made sense: surely the earthquake had left many children as orphans.  What Mulheir found, however, was that, like most countries with large numbers of orphanages, the children in Haiti’s orphanages were, on the whole, not orphans.  An estimated 80% had living parents – still more had extended family members.  So why were they there?

In an indirect way, it is true that the earthquake – or rather, the international community’s response to it – resulted in a massive influx of children to orphanages.  Georgette Mulheir says, “it is quite common, following war or natural disaster, where people lose their livelihoods and homes, that parents feel they have no option but to place their children in orphanages.”

Often desperate parents ask for help and support with housing and finding employment, but when those services are not available, and they cannot feed or protect their children, they feel their options have run out.

In the case of Haiti, though, Mulheir found a disturbing twist to this common tale of family separation following a natural disaster.

Georgette Mulheir Uncovering Orphanage-trafficking

Working together with the Haitian government’s department for child protection, Mulheir researched the situation in the orphanages. They found a disturbing pattern.  Only about 20% of the orphanages were officially registered with the government.  The others were private enterprises, with opaque funding arrangements, where children entered and left without anyone recording their existence.  Most were funded by donations from churches and volunteers from the USA.  Many used agents, known as child-finders, to persuade families to give them their children, simply as a means of bringing in donations from abroad.

At the government’s request, Mulheir’s team started to help the government close some of the worst orphanages.  In one, Mulheir says:

“When I first visited, there were 41 children aged 18 months to 15 years; The children were passive, listless, and traumatised, displaying signs of malnutrition and ill health.  There were only 12 beds with extremely dirty, worn-out mattresses. The small garden was filled with concrete rubble. The bathroom was a dirty hole in the ground. The kitchen was a patch of ground with the remnants of a charcoal fire. The living room was simply a concrete floor and breeze-block walls, with a makeshift roof open to the elements. It was more of a shack than a building. The children were barefoot and dirty, dressed in rags. There was no food and no drinking water.  One 15-year-old girl had been left in charge of all the children. This included her own baby, the only child in the orphanage who looked healthy.”

As the team gained their trust, the children began to talk about their families and social workers set out to trace them.  The children came from two villages about a two-hour drive from Port-au-Prince.  When the social workers met the families, they were all shocked when they heard about the conditions in which their children were living. The stories were consistent, Jonathas Vernet, the orphanage owner had pressured them to give their children to the orphanage, where they would receive good care and a free education. The parents were all poor and many could not afford education for their children.  Though it was a difficult decision, they had thought this was a way of giving their children a chance in life. Some had been trying to visit their children, but Vernet had given them a false address. He had told the parents they could visit their children every six months, but when the time arrived, the families tried to contact him by telephone. The calls were never answered.

The team of social workers carefully reunited all the children with their families, providing income-generation activities and support so the children could go to school.  Within months, all the children were happy, healthy and secure back home.

Vernet was not an isolated phenomenon.  Mulheir’s team found it was a widespread practice, where people called child-finders were paid by orphanage owners to aggressively recruit children.  Most parents said they gave up their children for the promise of an education that they could not afford to provide.

In other cases, the child-finder would seek out poor, pregnant women and promise to pay for their prenatal care. Healthcare in Haiti is not provided for free.  When the woman had just given birth and was lying on her hospital bed in the maternity ward, the child-finder would present her with a bill for a few hundred dollars – which she could not afford to pay.  The child-finder would then insist she gave him her baby as payment.

This same phenomenon, found across the majority of orphanages in Haiti, is also common in Kenya, Uganda, Nepal, Thailand and Cambodia, and many other countries.  It was becoming clear this was a little-understood form of child trafficking.  Georgette Mulheir decided more data was needed, so she commissioned research on the financing of illegal orphanages in Haiti.

Mulheir says, “We couldn’t track all the money, as a considerable amount is donated in cash by the thousands of volunteers who visit every year.  But from public accounts and official reports by donor, we found more than $100 million given to Haiti’s orphanages annually, allegedly to care for 30,000 children.  That worked out as a cost per child of more than four times GDP per capita.  The conditions in the orphanage demonstrated that nowhere near that amount was spent on the children.  And just imagine what a poor family could have done with that money.”

$100 million was equivalent to half of the US government’s entire aid budget to Haiti.  It was more than the EU donated to Haiti in a year.  It could have put 770,000 children through school – and most parents said they gave their child to the orphanage because they couldn’t afford to pay for their education.

Joining forces with other activists across the world, Georgette Mulheir gave evidence to an Australian Parliamentary Enquiry, which informed their new modern slavery legislation.  For the first time anywhere in the world, a country has legislated against orphanage-trafficking.

In Haiti, the work of Mulheir and her team helped get orphanage-trafficking on the government’s agenda.  A new Anti-Trafficking Committee took up the cause, urging the prosecution of orphanage-traffickers.  Progress was being made. Courageous civil servants, lawyers and prosecutors were taking on the traffickers.  And many Haitian activists believed that their country, with its proud history of overthrowing slavery, would take its place at the forefront of the global fight against modern slavery.

Dictatorship Returns to Haiti

But the events of the last two years have meant that much of the progress in Haiti has been undone.  A security and political crisis has been growing that reached a boiling point in recent weeks.

President Jovenel Moise failed to organize scheduled parliamentary elections in 2019. As a result, there has been no parliament for more than a year.    He has installed people loyal to him in all key positions within all public institutions and at all levels of government, including the judiciary, the police, the army, and local authorities.

Extreme violence, kidnappings and even massacres have become a way of life for ordinary Haitians.  Human rights organisations report that these human rights abuses are often the result of coordination between governmental authorities, security officials and gang members.

Girls and young women are targeted for kidnappings and sexual assault at an alarming rate.  Human rights defenders have documented cases of children and young people forced to join armed groups and commit acts of unspeakable violence.  Subsistence farmers are afraid to cultivate their smallholdings, as the gangs attack and steal their produce at harvest time.  As a result, the poorest in the country are going hungry.

Over a year ago, the US government’s Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC) control took the unprecedented step of sanctioning two former high-ranking government officials and a former police officer for their roles in the La Saline massacre of dozens of people, including small children.  OFAC noted that “widespread violence and growing criminality by armed gangs in Haiti is bolstered by a judiciary that does not prosecute those responsible for attacks on civilians. These gangs, with the support of some Haitian politicians, repress political dissent in Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods known to participate in anti-government demonstrations.”

Many Haitians say they have not witnessed such extreme repression since the Duvalier dictatorship.

Building a Global Campaign

Because of the current crisis in Haiti, Georgette Mulheir and other human rights professionals in Haiti and across the world have launched an international campaign, Defend Haiti’s Democracy, urging the international community to support ordinary Haitians.

Mulheir says, “we are calling on the United Nations, United States government, the European Union, and other international leaders to support ordinary Haitians to find a pathway out of a dictatorship.  Our colleagues and friends in Haiti are asking for three things: a peaceful transition of power; an end to violence; and a restoration of democracy and the rule of law”.

These demands brought thousands of protesters to the streets of Port-au-Prince on Sunday.  According to witnesses, at least one person was shot dead, when protesters journalists were fired upon by the Haitian police.

And international backing for this change appears to be growing.  International human rights federations and legal experts, as well as US elected officials, are calling for a change to the current position of the international community.

Congressman Gregory Meeks, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, in a joint letter to Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, wrote, “it is essential that the United States unambiguously reject any attempt by President Moïse to retain power in contravention of [democratic] principles. The time for a Haitian-led democratic transition is now…. President Moïse has lost credibility…. His extra-constitutional decrees – including the establishment of a domestic intelligence force, the unilateral appointment of key officials, and the harsh criminalization of acts of protest – must be called out for exactly what they are: attempts to hold onto the Presidency at the expense of the democratic process.”

Georgette Mulheir and her colleagues at Defend Haiti’s Democracy hope that global leaders are listening.  Until peace and democracy are restored, they say, it is impossible to develop the structures and services essential to protect the most vulnerable children and families in Haiti.

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