The World Enslaved (Benjamin Skinner)

  • Posted on: 20 April 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

Benjamin Skinner wrote an article in Foreign Policy about the modern face of human slavery.  According to Skinner, there are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history.  He states true abolition will elude us until: (1) we admit the massive scope of the problem; (2) attack it in all its forms; and (3) and empower slaves to help free themselves.  Even in Haiti, the only country to have led a successful slave rebellion, slavery thrives. Slavery has many gusies and "restaveks" are just one. 


Instead of paraphrasing Skinner's article, I have copied below the first part of it to give you a sense of how a restavek can be "acquired."  All italicized text below is his:



"Standing in New York City, you are five hours away from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. He or she can be used for anything, though sex and domestic labor are most common. Before you go, let’s be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good.



Most people imagine that slavery died in the 19th century. Since 1817, more than a dozen international conventions have been signed banning the slave trade. Yet, today there are more slaves than at any time in human history.



And if you’re going to buy one in five hours, you’d better get a move on. First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport, and hop on a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The flight takes three hours. After landing at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, you will need 50 cents for the most common form of transport in Port-au-Prince, the tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a canopy. Three quarters of the way up Route de Delmas, the capital’s main street, tap the roof and hop out. There, on a side street, you will find a group of men standing in front of Le Réseau (The Network) barbershop. As you approach, a man steps forward: “Are you looking to get a person?”



Meet Benavil Lebhom. He smiles easily. He has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored, striped golf shirt, a gold chain, and Doc Martens knockoffs. Benavil is a courtier, or broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. Two thirds of the employees he places are child slaves. The total number of Haitian children in bondage in their own country stands at 300,000. They are the restavèks, the “stay-withs,” as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work in captivity from before dawn until night. Benavil and thousands of other formal and informal traffickers lure these children from desperately impoverished rural parents, with promises of free schooling and a better life.



The negotiation to buy a child slave might sound a bit like this:

“How quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean and cook?” you ask. “I don’t have a very big place; I have a small apartment. But I’m wondering how much that would cost? And how quickly?”



“Three days,” Benavil responds. “And you could bring the child here?” you inquire. “Or are there children here already?”



“I don’t have any here in Port-au-Prince right now,” says Benavil, his eyes widening at the thought of a foreign client. “I would go out to the countryside.” 



You ask about additional expenses. “Would I have to pay for transportation?”   “Bon,” says Benavil. “A hundred U.S.”



Smelling a rip-off, you press him, “And that’s just for transportation?”  “Transportation would be about 100 Haitian,” says Benavil, or around $13, “because you’d have to get out there. Plus [hotel and] food on the trip. Five hundred gourdes.”



“Okay, 500 Haitian,” you say. Now you ask the big question: “And what would your fee be?” This is the moment of truth, and Benavil’s eyes narrow as he determines how much he can take you for.  “A hundred. American.”



“That seems like a lot,” you say, with a smile so as not to kill the deal. “How much would you charge a Haitian?”   Benavil’s voice rises with feigned indignation. “A hundred dollars. This is a major effort.”  



You hold firm. “Could you bring down your fee to 50 U.S.?” Benavil pauses. But only for effect. He knows he’s still got you for much more than a Haitian would pay. “Oui,” he says with a smile.



But the deal isn’t done. Benavil leans in close. “This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a ‘partner’? You understand what I mean?”  You don’t blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. “I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?”



“Oui!” Benavil responds enthusiastically.   If you’re interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can “arrange” the proper papers to make it look as though you’ve adopted the child.


He offers you a 13-year-old girl.  “That’s a little bit old,” you say.

“I know of another girl who’s 12. Then ones that are 10, 11,” he responds.   The negotiation is finished, and you tell Benavil not to make any moves without further word from you. Here, 600 miles from the United States, and five hours from Manhattan, you have successfully arranged to buy a human being for 50 bucks.



In many ways, Restaveks are Haiti's dirtiest secret.  But we have to discuss it so it will no longer be a secret.  It is an emotional issue.  Whether in Haiti or stateside, tempers flare when discussing the issue.  There are many grey areas.  I know Haitians who took in children into their own families, provided them an education, but expected them to help around the house.  I am convinced this is not the norm, though.  Most restaveks are girls precisely because they are the most vulnerable.  They can be exploited, sexually abused, and as of right now, they have no one to turn to.   No designated government agency, no designated non governmental organization, etc. 



Skinner states "Until governments define slavery in appropriately concise terms, prosecute the crime aggressively in all its forms, and encourage groups that empower slaves to free themselves, millions more will remain in bondage. And our collective promise of abolition will continue to mean nothing at all."



Expect food security to overshadow every other social and political agenda for the rest of the year at least.  But at the same time, if food security increases, we can anticipate children from large families in the countryside will be exploited to a much greater extent.   I would hope this administration could pull together a policy statement on where it stands on the practice and what it will do to deal with abuses.  If not, it falls upon the non governmental organizations to coordinate and to fill in the gaps as they have in the past. 


Haiti sacrificed a great deal to be free.  That the desecendents of those who gave everything for liberty should be enslaved themselves is inexcusable.   As a first step, we would suggest that a "champion" be appointed from the Haitian government to be the lead on the issue.   There is a precedent for this.  Say what you want about the Aristides, but Mildred was a fantastic HIV/AIDS advocate.   It should be someone at a high level with Preval's ear.  A National Task Force, with participation by civil society, faith based groups, NGOs, and the Diaspora should be formed.  A five year plan should be pulled together with clear objectives, yearly targets, and a price tag that can be conveyed to the donors who will have to pick up at least part of the tab.



We'll just at the start of this.  But at some point, Haitians and friends of Haiti have to come together to say that child exploitation and abuse is not and will never be acceptable in the world's first free black republic.


Welcome your thoughts.









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