As a kidnapped American nurse and her child marked their 11th day in captivity in Haiti on Monday, the United Nations’ leading child-welfare agency says it is seeing an alarming spike in the abductions of women and children in the Caribbean nation.
Nearly 300 cases have been reported in the first six months of this year, UNICEF said. The number is close to the total documented in 2022 and is close to three times more than what was recorded in 2021.
In Haiti, most kidnappings are at the hands of armed gangs, whose warfare has worsened since the 2021 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse. Gangs routinely grab people and hold them for ransom. But sometimes abductions are the result of inside jobs, where victims are set up — and even taken — by people they know, including family members, friends or employees.
Still, the high number of women and children who are falling victim to the epidemic is worrisome, the U.N. agency said.
“We can’t say that they’re specifically targeting women and children, but indeed we see that there is an increased number of women and children, both boys and girls, who are being abducted,” Laurent Duvillier, UNICEF’s regional chief of communications and advocacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, said in an interview.
“That in itself is a concern, as far as UNICEF is concerned, because they require specific assistance,” he added. “The level of risk is higher for them in many ways and they have needs that are very specific.”
As Haitians took to the streets in Port-au-Prince on Monday to protest against the violence, UNICEF called for the immediate release and safe return of all those who have been kidnapped. The actual number of kidnappings remains unknown since many abductions go unreported for fear of retaliation by armed groups, or concerns about victims being held longer due to their perceived ability to pay large ransom demands.
Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, speaking to reporters in New York on Monday, said “there are many different parties” responsible for the kidnappings in Haiti.
“There’s been a rise in activity, particularly by different criminal and other gangs. And that is why we’ve been pushing for a … multinational force that could help restore stability and order to Haiti,” Haq said.
Among those still being held by kidnappers is the former head of the country’s provisional electoral council and television station owner, Pierre-Louis Opont, who was abducted over a month ago, and Alix Dorsainvil. A U.S. citizen, Dorsainvil is a community health nurse from New Hampshire who works for the Christian humanitarian aid organization El Roi Haiti in Port-au-Prince. She and her daughter were abducted on the morning of July 27 on the campus of the nonprofit. She is married to the organization’s director, Sandro Dorsainvil.
A State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. government is aware of reports of the kidnapping of two U.S. citizens in Haiti.
“We are in regular contact with Haitian authorities and will continue to work with them and our U.S. government inter-agency partners,” the spokesperson said. “We have nothing further to share at this time.”
Dorsainvil was kidpoanoeod the same day the State Department ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel from its embassy, located several miles east in the suburb of Tabarre. Days earlier, dozens of Haitian families had sought refuge in front of the embassy after an armed gang invaded their nearby neighborhood.
U.S. citizens were also advised to immediately leave Haiti.
The State Department and El Roi have said little about the circumstances surrounding Dorsainvil’s abduction.
The Associated Press, citing witnesses at the campus, said Dorsainvil was providing medical care in El Roi’s small brick clinic Thursday morning when armed men burst in and grabbed her. The captors demanded $1 million in ransom.
Haitians familiar with the grassroots organization’s work have held protests demanding the duo’s release.
A report by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, which tracks kidnappings, concurs with UNICEF that there is a significant rise in kidnappings in Haiti compared to previous year. Since January, there have been 539 cases reported, the human rights group said.
Kidnappings are a very “traumatic experience” for victims, said Duvillier, the UNICEF spokesman.
“Many things can happen during the captivity, unfortunately,” he said, citing cases of sexual violence against girls and women.
“It’s not always the case, but it can happen. So there are many risks involved,” Duvillier added. “We have experience of girls being held for months in captivity, living with the armed groups being threatened, different forms of violence….It varies from one person to another.”
Even after individuals are released the trauma persists, he said. Victims are sometimes scared to make contact with relatives either because they want to protect them from being abducted or they are ashamed of what happened to them while in captivity. As a result of the increase in needs for services, Duvillier said UNICEF has increased its efforts in Haiti, working with police and the brigade in charge of minors to provide support and in some cases even housing for freed victims.
”Those who have been abducted live with fear that it can happen again and they don’t feel safe to go back to their relatives because they don’t want to expose their relatives, so they don’t know where to go,” he said.
The escalation in kidnappings and armed violence have made the country’s humanitarian crisis worse. Today, an estimated 5.2 million people, almost half of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance, the U.N. said. This includes 3 million children, many of whom have been displaced and are unable to go to school, while others are suffering from high rates of malnutrition.
In cases where they are forcefully taken by armed groups and used for financial or tactical gains, they are also left to grapple with deep physical and psychological scars, possibly for years.
“The stories we are hearing from UNICEF colleagues and partners on the ground are shocking and unacceptable,” said Gary Conille, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Women and children are not commodities. They are not bargaining chips. And they must never be exposed to such unimaginable violence. The growing trend in kidnappings and abductions is extremely worrisome, threatening both the people of Haiti and those who have come to help.”
Still, protection for women and children, in general, are among the most underfunded areas, said Duvillier. A $720 million humanitarian aid plan for Haiti has only received 23% of the funds it has requested, the United Nations has said.
“We need to provide water, we need to provide shelter, we need to provide food to people. But beyond those humanitarian needs to keep people alive, child protection, for example, is an area that is absolutely critical. But you may not see the impact of it,” he said. “You may not see how tangible, how visibly important it is because most of the people are living with internal scars…. But it’s very important if we want them to rebuild their lives and to move forward, go beyond the trauma and give them a sense of a normal life.”