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Haiti fears deportations will mean more child servants

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David McFadden, Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Watson Saint Fleur is 12 but he's never attended a day of school. He's toiled in hardship doing household chores and peddling plastic bags of drinking water along city streets noisy with motorbikes and trucks.

He's one of Haiti's "restaveks," a term to describe children whose poor parents hand them over to others in hopes they'll have opportunities to escape a dead-end life or at least get more food. It's a practice deeply ingrained in Haiti, where families frequently have numerous kids despite crushing poverty.

For many, that better life never arrives. Many are exploited as domestic servants in households only slightly better off, working long hours in exchange for food and a spot to sleep on a shack's floor. An untold number endure regular beatings, are deprived of an education and are victims of sexual abuse. And their numbers have been growing sharply as urban slums expand and poverty in the countryside deepens.

Studies indicate the population of child domestic workers rose from some 172,000 in 2002 to roughly 286,000 in 2014 -- four years after an earthquake flattened much of Port-au-Prince and outlying areas, killing as many as 300,000 and leaving some 1.5 million people homeless.

Now child advocates in the hemisphere's poorest country are bracing for yet another increase of youngsters like Watson driven into unpaid servitude.

The Trump administration is weighing an end to a humanitarian program that has protected nearly 60,000 Haitians from deportation since that earthquake -- a "temporary protected status" based on the assumption their homeland could not absorb them following the disaster. If the program known as TPS is not extended, people could be sent back to Haiti starting in January.

Such mass deportation would cut off remittances that keep many Haitian families fed in a country where deep poverty is the primary force behind the restavek practice.

"There's no doubt an end to TPS will create far more restaveks," said prominent Haitian child advocate Gertrude Sejour.

Each morning, Watson wakes from his spot on the floor to clean the house for his washerwoman employer before taking to the streets to sell water. He gets smaller portions at meals. He bathes the woman's 7-year-old boy to prepare him for the local school he's never attended. He helps set up birthday parties for the woman's two sons, but has never once gotten a party himself.

He's fuzzy about how he ended up at the woman's house, only knowing his mother died in his hometown of Petit Goave. He never knew his father.

"When she hits me, she says: 'Your mother died, why don't you die, too?'" Watson said outside the Maurice Sixto Foundation, where child advocates are working with the government social services agency to move him to a group home for vulnerable boys.

Social researchers in Haiti say the cultural practice is complex, even though it's often decried as a form of modern-day slavery. A 2015 study commissioned partly by UNICEF found that roughly 25 percent of Haitian children between 5 and 17 live apart from their parents, though most live with relations and not all are child domestic workers.

An estimated 30,000 children also live in residential centers in Haiti. Though often described as "orphans," the vast majority of the children have at least one living parent and have been placed in the often poorly regulated centers because their families cannot support them or pay for their schooling, child welfare advocates say.

"In some regions of the country it's even considered an honor to send their children to the city," said Mariana Rendon, protection officer with Haiti's office of the International Organization for Migration.