With the Caribbean left decimated by Hurricane Irma, it’s an unfortunate reality that child abusers will be waiting, ready to prey on the most vulnerable. Now is the time to act.
As history has shown time and time again, when Mother Nature strikes, so do child-abusers. With Haiti still struggling to recover one year on from Hurricane Matthew, and news that Puerto Rico residents could be without electricity for four to six months, the likelihood of child exploitation in the wake of Hurricane Irma is inevitable.
Speaking with UNICEF Australia’s Policy Director, Ms Amy Lamoin, it’s evident that children in the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to predators—from recruitment into armed forces, to sexual exploitation and trafficking.
“After a natural disaster, we almost always see increases in sexual and gender based violence,” she shared.
“Certainly girls and women aren’t the only ones experiencing [exploitation], but there’s definitely a heightened risk, and in developing and lower income countries, we absolutely see a spike in coercive sex, transactional sex, and exploitation in general.”
According to Ms Lamoin, one of the key factors for exploitation stems from the separation of children from their families—which can happen not only through natural events, but through the actions of well-meaning individuals.
“You see a spike [in exploitation and trafficking] when children are separated from their parents after a natural disaster, and frequently, we’ll see instances of children being moved around the country or across the border—which is a really big concern.
“We saw this happen a lot after Hurricane Matthew swept through Haiti—where people were unlawfully moving children across borders, because they were either orphaned or separated from their families—and of course, this can make it very hard to unite them with their families,” she says.
“This is why UNICEF recommend suspending any type of adoption programs during and post emergencies, to ensure adoptions are legitimate.”
Given the Caribbean’s reputation as a primary destination, transit, and source country for child trafficking, Hurricane Irma is a devastating blow not only for every local, but also the children who are already at risk.
According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report from the U.S. State Department, several Caribbean nations, including Belize and Haiti, are still ranked as Tier 3 trafficking locations. This means that they have been recognised as a country which does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so.
Meanwhile, Barbuda—which has been decimated by Hurricane Irma with more than 90% of homes completely destroyed—is ranked as a Tier 2 ‘destination and transit’ country, with anecdotal reports of children being subjected to sex trafficking.
With Hurricane Irma leaving entire Caribbean cities in rubble, foreign aid organisations must work swiftly and strategically, to ensure all locals, including children, remain safe and healthy. Along with the essentials, such as clean water and sanitation, experts agree that emergency shelters also need to be carefully managed.
“The aftermath [of a natural disaster] usually leaves a large amount of people displaced in emergency shelters, and when congregated together in a small space, it creates an atmosphere of lawlessness,” explains Glen Hulley, a former Victorian police officer who now runs the anti-child exploitation organisation, Project Karma.
“After a natural disaster, police and emergency services are usually heavily engaged in recovery efforts, which leaves shelters exposed; and when coupled with poverty, and a lack of electricity, water, and sanitation, the ingredients create a state of chaos.
“This can lead to people in the shelters offending against others, and at the same time, attract [abusers and traffickers] looking to exploit, or even kidnap, children.”
Likewise, Ms Lamoin agrees.
“Where children have survived [natural disasters], they’re often in a really overcrowded shelter, which of course raises a whole lot of health concerns. This includes children experiencing sexual violence and child sexual abuse.”
“Keeping families together is really important, and we try to restore children’s lives as quickly as possible—not only through core survival and health services, such as water and sanitation, but also psychosocial assistance for those who are experiencing trauma,” she shared.
For those in the general public looking to help the victims of Hurricane Irma, Ms Lamoin suggests making a financial donation to an organisation who are on the ground in the Caribbean.
“People often want to help with donations of clothing, but things can change so fast on a day to day basis, which means that the fastest way to mobilise support is through financial assistance.
“Stay informed and support the organisations doing work on the ground.”