The heart-rending images of injured and frightened children after Haiti’s devastating earthquake last month no doubt stirred the compassion of many Americans, including the Baptist evangelicals from Idaho now being held on suspicion of human trafficking in Port-au-Prince.
We reserve judgment on the group’s claim that they were motivated only by the best of intentions when they tried to spirit more than 30 youngsters across the border into the neighboring Dominican Republic without proper documents. But we can well understand why Haitian officials are insisting they knew what they were doing was illegal and are calling for the Americans to be prosecuted for kidnapping and trafficking in child victims of the tragedy.
In the chaotic situation after the quake, thousands of children were separated from their parents or caregivers. Even before that catastrophe, Haiti had more than 300,000 orphaned or abandoned children vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers masquerading as relief organizations or aid workers, and the country’s notoriously corrupt government too often turned a blind eye to the trade in human lives. Trafficking victims ended up as sex slaves or unpaid household domestics far from home, condemned to miserable lives of perpetual involuntary servitude.
The Idaho Baptists may not have known this tragic history of exploitation when they set out for Haiti, but once they got there they had a responsibility to make sure the children they wished to help really were orphans – it turns out most were not — and to follow the legal requirements for taking them out of the country.
That they did neither suggests they had no intention of trying to abide by either U.S. or Haitian adoption laws.
What the group clearly did understand was that some Haitian parents were so anxious for their children’s safety that they were willing to turn them over to total strangers on the promise of a better life in America. Under such circumstances, the parents can’t have given anything resembling informed consent. And the missionaries knowingly took advantage of that desperation when they tried to spirit the children out of the country, bypassing the formal legal process set up to protect vulnerable youngsters.
Even if the group’s members ultimately intended to place the children in loving adoptive homes, their actions were virtually indistinguishable from those of the worst traffickers in the global slave trade.
Some may wish to continue characterizing what these Americans did as an unselfish act of charity motivated by religious belief. But we think human trafficking under any guise is still a crime against humanity.