1. The problem

Anywhere between 1 in 10, or 300,000 – 500,000 children in Haiti are exploited

High levels of poverty combined with a lack of access to social services and information regarding the dangers of human trafficking have allowed a system of child labour in Haiti called ‘restavek’ to thrive. The concept of restavek is a cultural practice where disadvantaged children from rural areas are sent to work as domestic helpers for wealthier families, usually living in urban areas. The term ‘restavek’ is not necessarily sinister and can cover a form of family solidarity where families help other children, not their own, through the provision of food and board. However the restavek system is widely abused and anywhere between 1 in 10, or 300,000 – 500,000 children in Haiti are exploited.5 Many of these children suffer the cruelest form of neglect – denied food, water, a bed to sleep in and constant physical and emotional abuse.

Children represent the most vulnerable population to modern slavery in Haiti, although adults have been identified in forced labour in agriculture, construction and sexual exploitation within Haiti and in the Dominican Republic, other Caribbean countries, the United States and South America.6  Street children, many of whom are runaway restaveks, can end up being trafficked into forced begging and commercial sexual exploitation.7

Since the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010, few resources have been set aside for combating modern slavery

Since the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 which killed an estimated 300,000 people and forced an estimated 1.5 million into camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP), the country’s efforts as well as the efforts of international humanitarian partners have been directed at relief and recovery. Consequently, few resources have been set aside for combating modern slavery. In addition, the estimated 357,785 people who still remain in IDP camps as of March 2013, especially women and children “were at an increased risk of sex trafficking and forced labour.”8

Though most victims of modern slavery in Haiti are Haitian nationals, there have been some reports of women being trafficked into Haiti from the Dominican Republic for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has reported that up to 200 Dominican women are trafficked into Haiti every year, most of which end up in commercial sexual exploitation in affluent areas and at major sea-ports.9 Men and women are trafficked from Haiti into other countries, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, as well as North American countries for the purpose of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation. Haiti is also a transit country for victims of trafficking en route to the United States.10

Notable aspects of the problem

In rural Haiti, severe poverty and a chronic lack of social services such as schools and basic healthcare increase children’s vulnerability to modern slavery. Access to schools is extremely limited, and despite a new programme of ‘free education for all’ implemented by the current Haitian Government (discussed in relation to the Government’s response, below), most schools in Haiti remain fee-paying or run by NGOs. Many Haitians cannot afford to send their children to schools, especially as Haitian families (most notably in rural areas) are large.

When a ‘koutchye’ (or middleman/woman) offers to take a child, and transport them to the city where they can work in exchange for food, shelter and education, a parent is faced with an impossible choice. Sometimes money is exchanged, but in the majority of the cases, a promise of a better life for the child in the city is sufficient leverage.11 For the most part, the ‘host’ families are poor themselves,12 living in the larger towns’ and cities’ slums. Because families have little access to running water and electricity, restavek children are used to perform domestic tasks, essentially being used as substitutes for non-existent public services and utilities. These children’s daily tasks include visiting the public water fountain, washing clothes and cooking food.

They are physically, sexually and mentally abused, and deprived of food and sleep

Children in restavek situations, most of whom have been promised free schooling in exchange for their light labour, are often prevented from attending school, or are able only to attend sporadically, which seriously impedes their development. It is estimated that only 20 percent of restaveks are allowed access to school and only one percent reach secondary school. Often they are physically, sexually and mentally abused, and deprived of food and sleep. According to IOM data, of the 1,786 cases assisted since 2005, 30 percent had been sexually abused and 80 percent had suffered aggravated physical abuse, that left them with long-term consequences.13

2. What is the government doing about it?

Haiti Ratified
Slavery Convention No
Supplementary Slavery Convention Yes
UN Trafficking Protocol Yes
Forced Labour Convention Yes
Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention Yes
CRC Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children No
Domestic Work Convention No

Haiti has ratified a number of key international treaties on modern slavery, but not the Optional Protocol on the Sale or Children or the Domestic Work Convention. The provisions of the UN Trafficking Protocol, ratified by Haiti, have no effect domestically until they are transposed into national legislation. A draft law on human trafficking was at the time of writing (June 2013) before the Haitian Parliament.14 This bill would make child trafficking a criminal offence and would strengthen Haitian authorities’ ability to prosecute traffickers.15

Article 335 of the Haitian Labour code, enacted in 2003, prohibits the employment of minors under the age of 15, the mistreatment and abuse of children, as well as their placement into restavek service.16 This law prohibits abuse and violence of any kind towards children, including child exploitation and work which is likely to harm the safety, health or morals of a child.17 The law stipulates that a child can only be entrusted to a ‘host’ family within the confines of a relationship of assistance and solidarity – that is, it requires that a child in domestic service must be treated in the same manner as the biological children of the family. This law however suffers from important flaws that make it practically unusable. As it is currently drafted, it does not provide for criminal sanctions, and contains a critical loophole in that it does not prevent abuse of an ‘accommodated‘ child if the biological children of the family also suffer abuse.18

When President Michel Martelly was elected in 2011, he introduced a development programme for Haiti focusing on five priorities: employment, education, rule of law, energy and environment.19 In order to fulfill the education priority, the “Programme for Universal Free and Obligatory Education” (Programme de scolarisation universelle gratuite et obligatoire )20 was launched with the aim to subsidise primary school for all children. However, the programme has encountered many problems, with allegations of fraud and questionable standards.21

Notable aspects of the response

The NGO situation on the ground in Haiti is crowded and chaotic. One of the major challenges is a lack of NGO coordination across all sectors of civil society.

There are no government-run trafficking victim shelters. However, IOM has been cooperating with local NGOs and governmental partners to tackle human trafficking. The programming consists of three pillars: direct assistance, awareness raising and capacity building. Direct assistance consists of the delivery of medical and psychological services, income generating activity trainings, micro-grants, and long-term return monitoring to minimise the risk of re-trafficking.

There are several Haitian NGOs such as Foyer l’Escale, Centre d’Action pour le Developement and Organisation des Jeunes Filles en Action that have significant experience in providing accommodation, educational and psycho-social services to victims. All IOM operations are undertaken in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Institute for Social Welfare and Research or the Brigade for the Protection of Minors of the Haitian National Police. Awareness-raising campaigns are equally led by governmental partners and IOM provides targeted expertise and services to support the Government’s efforts.22

3. What needs to happen?

Haiti should:

  • Work with donors to ensure that key elements of the criminal justice response to this issue are markedly improved across investigations, prosecutions and adjudications. This needs to include, at a minimum:
    • Enacting a law which explicitly criminalises trafficking in persons;
    • Capacity building for law enforcement to identify victims of modern slavery, particularly adults;
    • Capacity building of law enforcement to ensure they can effectively investigate modern slavery situations. This will need to include ensuring the appropriate mandate, funding and transparency mechanisms are in place;
    • A focus on corruption within law enforcement;
    • Capacity building for the local judiciary on the use of this new instrument, and its features, and sensitising them about the specificity of this crime and the specific needs of its victims; and
    • Identifying ways to ensure that the accused are tried in a timely and speedy manner.
  • Set up a National Committee as envisaged by the current draft law on counter-trafficking to strongly coordinate efforts (including of NGOs) and draft a National Plan of Action.
  • Publish an annual report on steps taken by the Government to combat modern slavery, including criminal justice data.
  • Launch awareness campaigns to reach all people in Haiti. Educate parents and children of the risks of trafficking, and spread awareness within all communities of the illegality of the restavek system.
  • Equip and empower communities who wish to rid themselves of modern slavery by providing training to community leaders and encouraging them to spread awareness in a grassroots manner.


  1. 2012 Population Data, The World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/country/haiti
  2. 2012 GDP $US Data, The World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD
  3. 2012 GDP per capita $US Data, The World Bank: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD/countries
  4. “Migration and Remittances Data, Inflows” 2011, The World Bank http://go.worldbank.org/092X1CHHD0
  5. Information from field based sources.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti” (7 February 2013), Forst, p13, United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A-HRC-22-65_EN.pdf
  8. “US Trafficking in Persons Report 2013”, Haiti Country Narrative, p187, US Department of State: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/210739.pdf
  9. “Haiti Counter Trafficking Factsheet” (May 2012), International Organisation for Migration: http://www.iomhaiti.info/en/pdf/factsheets-august12/Factsheet_Counter_Trafficking_Aug_2012.pdf
  10. Ibid.
  11. Information from field based sources.
  12. “Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti” (7 February 2013), Forst, p13, United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A-HRC-22-65_EN.pdf
  13. Information from field based sources.
  14. “Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti” (7 February 2013), Forst, p13, United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A-HRC-22-65_EN.pdf
  15. Ibid.
  16. “Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, Haiti” (2010) Observation (CEARC) – adopted 2010, published 100th ILC session, International Labour Organisation, Information System on International Labour Standards: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:13100:0::NO:13100:P13100_COMMENT_ID:2323947
  17. “Haiti – Restavek: The Persistence of Child Labour and Slavery” (3-14 October 2011), p12, Submission to the United Nations, Universal Periodic Review: http://lib.ohchr.org/HRBodies/UPR/Documents/session12/HT/RF-Restav%C3%A8kFreedom-eng.pdf
  18. Information from field based sources.
  19. “UN Country Programme document for Haiti (2013-2016)” United Nations Development Programme: http://web.undp.org/latinamerica/countryprogramme.shtml
  20. “Michel Martelly’s education plan in Haiti marked by mismanagement and inflated claims”, (9 April 2013), Ross, Rabble Canada: http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/roger-annis/2013/04/michel-martelly%E2%80%99s-education-plan-haiti-marked-mismanagement-and-i
  21. “Report of the Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Haiti” (7 February 2013), Forst, p13, United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session22/A-HRC-22-65_EN.pdf
  22. Information from field based sources.