An escalation of gang violence, political instability and a deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti has left half its children relying on humanitarian aid to survive, Unicef says.

At least 2.6 million are expected to need immediate lifesaving assistance this year as the overlapping crises leave Haiti’s children in the worst position since the earthquake of 2010, Unicef’s Haiti representative, Bruno Maes, told the Guardian.

“Haitian children don’t just face challenges accessing food and potable water while the health system collapses around them,” Maes said. “There is also a lack of protection. Children are being abused, young girls are being raped and services are not there at the scale they should be for their survival and development.”

Gang violence has escalated in Haiti since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July 2021, and the Caribbean country’s economy and security order is in freefall. Gangs have seized control of two-thirds of the capital, bringing human rights abuses, unprecedented malnutrition and the return of cholera.

A mother and daughter run past a roadblock in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in late January.
A mother and daughter run past a roadblock during police protests in Port-au-Prince, Haiti,
late January.
Photograph: Odelyn Joseph/AP

Haiti is experiencing the worst level of hunger in its history, with 4.7 million people suffering from acute hunger, the World Food Programme recently warned. Anarchy reached new heights in late January when police – the last line of defence against the gangs – staged a revolt. Angry officers terrorised Port-au-Prince, firing guns into the air, creating roadblocks of burning tyres and trapping the prime minister in the airport.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the violence and many of the capital’s schools remain shuttered or have been destroyed. There are fears the disruption in education will make it easier for gangs to recruit children to take up arms. Unicef was informed of another school closure on 2 February as armed bandits extorted parents.

Maes said: “All the children suffered from the presence of the armed group there, which shows how much violence and insecurity is spreading around the city. In the south, the north, the mountains and suburban areas – in fact, it’s everywhere, and kids are paying a heavy price.”

The violence has made treating the surging number of hungry or sick people more challenging. To support health centres, Unicef has to negotiate access with gangs, who are now the de-facto authorities in many areas.

Many aid groups have pulled out in the past year. Médecins Sans Frontières
suspended all its operations at a public hospital in west Port-au-Prince on 26 January after three masked men burst into an emergency room, dragged a patient outside and shot him dead. It was the second such incident in six months that forced MSF to close to protect staff.

“We are again shocked by this act of brutal retribution which violates all humanitarian principles and the protection this patient should have had inside a medical structure,” said Benoit Vasseur, MSF’s head of mission in Haiti. “We have no other choice than to temporarily suspend all our activities in Raoul Pierre Louis hospital.”

The humanitarian crisis is expected to intensify this year, with no obvious political solution in sight. Ariel Henry, who has taken over as acting president since the assassination of Moïse, has pleaded for international military support but UN member nations have not responded. Jamaica is the only country so far to publicly offer troops.

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A woman and two children displaced by gang violence shelter next to a police truck in Port-au-Prince.
A woman and two children displaced by gang violence shelter next to a police truck in Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters

Unicef is seeking $210m (£175m) – double what was requested in 2022 – to meet the needs of 2.7 million people. The agency is calling on the international community to urgently increase support for Haiti, which it says is the most underfunded in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Humanitarian assistance to children and their families, one of the few remaining lifelines for children in Haiti, is a buffer that prevents the country from spiralling into a cycle of social unrest, insecurity, instability and more poverty,” said Garry Conille, Unicef director for the region.

“Regardless of what may divide Haitians, the future of our children should unite us all. Businesspeople, civil servants, artists, teachers, nurses and religious leaders can all be part of a positive ripple effect across Haiti by investing in children.”


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