Image: Haitian children
Roberto Schmidt  /  AFP - Getty Images
One of the 33 Haitian children, a child of around 13 months, second left, who were stopped in a bus from crossing the border with the Dominican Republic sits at the SOS Children's Village in Croix des Bouquets, outside of Port-au-Prince, on January 31.
updated 2/10/2010 5:52:50 AM ET 2010-02-10T10:52:50

The head of UNICEF warned Tuesday that people may still be trying to smuggle children out of Haiti and said protecting youngsters who survived the earthquake is the top concern of the U.N. children's agency.

Ann Veneman said in an interview with The Associated Press that UNICEF is starting a program to identify children who lost or can't find their parents.

The group is also working with other groups to put children who are alone into facilities where they can receive food, water and psychological help, she said.

"This is a children's emergency," she said.

Veneman, who visited Haiti last week, said in every humanitarian crisis there's a risk that children will be trafficked out of the country for sexual exploitation, adoption, child labor or other illegal purposes. In Haiti, she said, "this is a big concern."

Americans charged with kidnapping
Last week, 10 Americans were charged with kidnapping and criminal association for trying to take 33 children into the neighboring Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without proper documentation.

The Baptist missionaries say they were heading to a Dominican orphanage following Haiti's devastating quake, and had only good intentions.

Veneman said UNICEF has learned of some other instances "where there is concern that children may not have (had) the necessary documents when they left."

Video: 'Haiti 10' case creates more red tape

At the airport in Port-au-Prince and the border with the Dominican Republic, specially trained officials are now checking documents, which Veneman said should make a difference.

Veneman declined to comment on the detained Americans, saying the judicial system in Haiti is handling the case: "I think we need to await the outcome of those proceedings," she said.

Veneman said Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive expressed concern at the massive media attention directed at the detained Americans.

"As the prime minister said to me in a meeting with him, 'I spend so much of my time answering questions about these 10 Americans when I have 2 million people in need here,'" the UNICEF chief said.

Even before the Americans were detained, fears that child traffickers would take advantage of the chaos following the quake led Bellerive to announce that all foreign adoptions would need his personal approval.

Number of children left alone unknown
Veneman said there is no estimate of the number of children left alone as a result of the Jan. 12 quake.

Before it struck, there were between 300,000 and 350,000 children in residential care facilities but many were left by parents too poor to take care of them, she said.

Veneman said some care facilities and orphanages collapsed in the quake, killing children, though nobody has any figures.

Many children lost their parents, and most have now been put "into some kind of safe place," including residential care facilities like an SOS children's village, she said.

"The primary concern is protection of children — making sure they have shelter, food, water, the basic necessities and care," Veneman said.

Effort to ID kids
UNICEF has begun a program to to give children some kind of identity — such as an arm band — to make sure that as the process goes through they can then reunite them with family members.

"This is really the goal, to reunite any unaccompanied children with family members," she said.

According to population estimates, 38 percent of Haiti's nine million people are under the age of 15 and about 45 percent are 18 and under, Veneman said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Jolie visits Haiti earthquake victims

  1. Closed captioning of: Jolie visits Haiti earthquake victims

    >>> matt, thank you. in haiti on tuesday, some star power in the middle of the chaos. angelina jolie , a goodwill ambassador for the united nations , visited quake victims, including some of the children being treated in makeshift hospitals. nbc's mike taibbi has the story of one of those tiniest victims. mike, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, meredith. angelina jolie had already visited quake victims hospitalized in the dominican republic , and while her itinerary had been kept secret for security reasons, she started with a visit to a field hospital run by doctors without borders. away from a distance but no comments by the actress or about her by any officials, but inside this field hospital , she surely learned about the plight of a 3-month-old girl the staff named landina. her real name and parents are unknown, but she needs evacuation for a complex surgery for a fractured skull, surgery that might save her life.

    >> it won't be covered with the equipment we have here.

    >> reporter: but because she has no documentation and special permission to be airlifted out has been slow in coming, she has languished here for days. it's the same problem plaguing other field hospitals like the one run by medishare, especially since those ten baptist missionaries were arrested and jailed for attempting child kidnapping. while evacuations by military aircraft continue, private pilots say they'll fly their mercy missions only on one condition.

    >> just hand me some papers, i'll do it. i just want to make sure i'm not going to get in trouble about it.

    >> reporter: and if there's no papers, no flight.

    >> exactly.

    >> reporter: before the baptist missionaries were jailed, 10 to 15 children were evacuated daily on private flights. in the two weeks since then, no more than a half dozen total have been flown out privately for needed care, adding to a grieving tally here in haiti .

    >> a few deaths last week to patients that could have gotten out but didn't or the papers weren't done in time, and certainly, worse outcomes for a lot of children.

    >> reporter: some good news for landina, though. with her story highlighted by britain's channel 4 , a plan to evacuate her has reportedly been worked out, perhaps as early as today. and that plan allegedly worked out before jolie arrived, the actress who's going to visit a couple other facilities here in haiti before she leaves later today . meredith?

    >> mike taibbi , thank you very much.

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