Fifteen children died in a fire that swept overnight through an orphanage in Haiti run by a U.S. Christian non-profit group, authorities said on Friday, triggering renewed controversy over the proliferation of non-registered orphanages in the poorest nation in the Americas.
Two children were burned to death in the flames that ravaged the Orphanage of the Pennsylvania-based Church of Bible Understanding on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, the capital, while 13 died in hospital due to asphyxiation.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately clear.
“This was a very tragic incident,” said the director of the Institute for Social Welfare, Arielle Jeanty Villedrouin, adding the priority now was to find a new home for surviving children.
“We are going to place them in a transit centre while we do research on their family and see if we can reunite them with their parents,” she told Reuters. She did not elaborate.
Four in five of the around 30,000 children in Haiti’s orphanages have living parents who gave them up because they were too impoverished to look after them, according to the government. Nearly 60% of the population of 11.2 million survives on less than $2.40 a day, according to the World Bank.
Contacted for comment, a woman who answered the Church of Bible Understanding’s telephone number in Port-au-Prince said: “We will make it known when it is appropriate.”
She did not identify herself and hung up without saying anything further.
There was no immediate response to a voicemail left by Reuters seeking comment at the number listed for the Orphanage of the Church of Bible Understanding at its office in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The group says on its website it started its first orphanage in Haiti nearly 40 years ago. It says its primary goal is “to spread the Gospel to any and all who will receive it.”
Villedrouin said the orphanage, which housed around 60 children, did not have state authorization to operate. Just 35 of 754 orphanages in Haiti are officially authorized, with a further 100 in the process of getting a licence.
The government has closed around 160 institutions over the last five years, she said, and has barred any more from opening.
Poverty, disability and a lack of access to basic health, education and social services mean many Haitian parents send the children they feel they cannot look after to orphanages or to the homes of wealthier relatives or acquaintances.
Both practices are controversial. Critics say the children taken in by relatives are often used as servants, forced to work without pay, isolated from the children in the household and seldom sent to school.
Meanwhile conditions at orphanages, which proliferated after the 2010 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people, are often below standard.
“Out of desperation, parents place their children in orphanages hoping they will receive better care than they believe they can provide,” according to a charity founded by “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling to reunite children with their parents.
“But, too often, this is not the case, as orphanages cannot meet children’s individual needs.”
Worse still, children living in hundreds of orphanages in Haiti suffer sexual and physical abuse and some are trafficked into orphanages for profit, to attract donations, the London-based charity Lumos wrote in a report three years ago.
Donors, mostly from the United States and faith-based organizations, give $70 million a year to one-third of Haiti’s orphanages, it said.