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Delivering humanitarian aid to the people of Haiti has never been more dangerous

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Delivering humanitarian aid to the people of Haiti is increasingly dangerous. Just last week, 17 missionaries with the Christian Aid Ministries were taken by the Haitian gang 400 Mawozo. The leader of that gang is threatening to kill the missionaries if a ransom - $1 million per person, as much as $17 million altogether - isn't paid. Of course, all this is happening against a backdrop of political chaos.

Laurent Duvillier is regional chief of communication for UNICEF's Latin America and the Caribbean operations, and he joins us from Panama. Mr. Duvillier, thanks so much for being with us.

LAURENT DUVILLIER: Hi, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Your organization has a number of aid workers in Haiti right now. Are they staying? Are you planning to change or reduce operations?

DUVILLIER: Well, UNICEF teams are on the ground, and we are not planning to downsize our operation on the country. We are scaling up operation because this is the time. It's even more important we continue to deliver aid in Haiti right now.

Now, how do we do that and keep our staff safe - both foreign staff, but also local staff - because we have to put things into perspective. The spiraling violence, looting and road blockades and the armed gangs are not just affecting foreign workers. They're also affecting local humanitarian staff workers and posing, indeed, an obstacle to humanitarian aid in the aftermath of a earthquake that, remember, hit the southern part of the country three months ago.

SIMON: Well, how do you keep them safe?

DUVILLIER: Well, you know, there are a set of measures that we are constantly updating. And one of the difficult part is that it's extremely volatile security environment. And I was there three weeks ago, so I can tell you. I found myself in that situation that one road that you take to deliver aid in the morning is safe, and then there is a security incident with gang criminality and shooting in the street, and it becomes more dangerous. So you constantly need to adjust, and you constantly have a plan B, a plan C and a plan D. All this insecurity is making our humanitarian work much more costly and complicated.

SIMON: The number of kidnappings, I gather, in Haiti have been increasing for some time, haven't they?

DUVILLIER: They have been increasing for some times, but we see really disturbing emerging trends. And I give you two of them. One - it's not just the rich and the wealthy people that are being targeted for kidnappings. But increasingly, the middle class and even the poorest segment of the population are being targeted. So it's getting more widespread.

The second trend that is really worrying - the number of children and women abducted for ransom in the first eight month of this year has already surpassed last year's total. Nowhere is safe for children in Haiti anymore - on school, in the street, at home or even a church, anywhere - at any time of the day and the night. And I remember. I was there. I could see the fear and the anxiety in the eyes of my Haitian colleagues because they are parents. Children now in Haiti are more and more used as simple bargaining chips by criminals.

SIMON: Are you concerned that the violence and the kidnappings will deter international aid groups from trying to help Haiti and that the world will turn its back?

DUVILLIER: It is a concern. And indeed, we need to find ways we keep operating on the ground because there is a consequence if we don't do so. I've seen so many parents - I give you an example. In the southern part of the country, I've seen kids receiving backpacks for the back-to-school in areas where 70% of the schools are either damaged or destroyed by the earthquake. And I've seen parents begging for the schools to reopen. If we don't give to those families a sense of hope, if we don't provide water, safe water, there is very little eternity for them. If we don't provide aid, those communities will turn to those who are there, and that means the criminal gangs. So we need to break this vicious cycles of poverty, natural disaster, insecurity leading to more migration. The way we can break this is by investing in children.

SIMON: Laurent Duvillier, regional chief of communications for UNICEF's Latin America and Caribbean operations, thank you so much for being with us.

DUVILLIER: Thank you for inviting me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.