A team of United Nations staff dealing with human rights and displacement has gone to quake-hit Haiti to assess a range of protection issues in the wake of the disaster that has left one third of the country's 9 million inhabitants in need of urgent assistance.
The five-member team comprises officials from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and represents the first time that the two Geneva-based bodies have fielded a joint protection team of this type during a crisis.
UN agencies and their partners on the ground have been working tirelessly to provide immediate assistance, from medical care, food and water supplies to security and logistics, for the victims of the 7.0-magnitude quake that struck Haiti on 12 January 2010.
Protection issues, especially related to children and women, are also an important concern.
"There have been, and continue to be, sizeable population movements into the countryside, and we are concerned that a range of protection issues could emerge among the displaced people living outside the main area where relief operations are taking place," OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told a news conference in Geneva.
He added that in addition to women and children, other groups such as single mothers, the elderly, the disabled and the wounded may also need special attention.
"Sexual and gender-based violence was already a serious concern in Haiti prior to the earthquake, and will need careful monitoring. Enslavement of children and trafficking were also existing problems, and could easily emerge as serious issues over the coming weeks and months," he stated.
Another major problem, he said, is the loss of crucial identity and other documents allowing access to a range of State services as well those proving ownership of land and property, which could lead to major disputes and injustices when rebuilding gets under way.
Also, with tens of thousands of people killed, and an urgent need to bury their corpses, many will not be issued with death certificates in the normal fashion. "Unless systems are established to deal with this, there could be tremendous problems for people trying to claim their inheritance and this too could lead to land and property disputes further down the line," Mr. Colville noted.
The issue of protection for children is also a critical issue for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), which is trying to identify, feed and care for the large number of unaccompanied children in the wake of the Haiti disaster.
UNICEF's Jean Claude Legrand told reporters that the agency is creating centres to welcome unaccompanied children and is working with the Haitian Government, the Red Cross and the non-governmental group Save the Children to address their needs.
Procedures have been put in place and a surveillance mechanism set up to identify families and to ensure that children are reunited with family members and not with predators. Unfortunately, he added, a number of cases of children who disappeared, for example from hospitals, have already been registered.
UNICEF also said it will start an emergency campaign to vaccinate children against measles, polio and tetanus, targeting some 360,000 children between the ages of one and five years.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said nurses are needed urgently in Haiti to assist with the sick and wounded.
"We see the major health need at the moment as providing surgery and trauma care to people who have suffered major injuries but the key is to ensure that they receive post-operative care in the days following their surgery," said WHO's Paul Garwood
Mr Garwood also noted that health services are being rehabilitated to care for people who suffer chronic diseases such as HIV, cancer, and diabetes. At least 55 health partners and organisations are now working with the UN and the Haitian health ministry to provide emergency health care.
A priority for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) is to ensure that pregnant women have access to professional medical care. There are over 60,000 pregnant women in Port-au-Prince alone, and 7,000 of them will give birth in the next month, according to the agency.
"UNFPA in Haiti has already supplied 18 safe delivery and reproductive health kits to our partners," said spokesperson Anne Wittenberg, adding that in the next few days, the agency will deliver 20,000 kits containing items such as sanitary napkins, diapers, anti-bacterial soap and other hygiene and cleaning supplies that allow women to live in dignity with their families.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has delivered more than 1.4 million food rations, an equivalent of three meals a day, to about a quarter of a million people in Haiti since the earthquake struck. Spokesperson Emilia Casella said in the coming weeks, the agency is aiming to deliver five-day rations a day to 100,000 people, but notes that the situation is evolving.
"Day by day there are things that are impacting on the ability to get the food and other supplies out. Aftershocks have been continuing and there were two significant tremors on Wednesday and on Thursday and the Wednesday quake did further damage [to] our warehouses and those have become unusable now. So we are in a situation where some of the food is also not accessible, the food that was in those warehouses."
In a related development, the UN and the United States today signed a statement of principles clarifying their respective roles in assisting the Haitian Government in the disaster response.
The acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Haiti, Edmond Mulet, told a news briefing that the US forces will be dedicated to distributing humanitarian aid and ensuring security for those distributions, while the UN Mission (MINUSTAH) will be performing its duties to assist the Haitian National Police in guaranteeing security and stability in the country.
"This is a document that clarifies the roles and responsibilities and areas of work of the different forces on the ground," said Mr. Mulet, adding that the UN will soon be signing a similar document with the Canadians, who also have forces on the ground.
Meanwhile, the confirmed death toll from Haiti's devastating earthquake has risen above 150,000 in the Port-au-Prince area alone, a government minister has declared.
Communications minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue explained that the count was based on bodies collected in and around the capital by the state company CNE.