Children have gone missing from hospitals in Haiti since the devastating earthquake struck, raising fears of trafficking for adoption abroad, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Friday.
"We have documented let's say around 15 cases of children disappearing from hospitals and not with their own family at the time," said UNICEF adviser Jean Luc Legrand.
"UNICEF has been working in Haiti for many years and we knew the problem with the trade of children in Haiti which existed already beforehand, and unfortunately many of these trade networks have links with the international adoption 'market'," Legrand explained.
The agency underlined that it had warned countries during the past week not to step up adoptions from Haiti in the immediate wake of the quake.
Several are fast-tracking adoption procedures already under way, including Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States.
The Spanish presidency of the European Union will on Monday urge the bloc to forge a common position on such adoptions from Haiti, Madrid said Friday.
Legrand said the situation was similar to the aftermath of the tsunami in Asia five years ago.
Trafficking networks sprang into action immediately after the disaster and were taking advantage of the weakness of local authorities and relief coordination "to kidnap children and get them out of the country," Legrand told journalists.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that child enslavement and trafficking in Haiti was "an existing problem and could easily emerge as a serious issue over the coming weeks and months."
The UN mission in Haiti has stepped up surveillance of roads, UNICEF officials said.
Legrand said there was separate but only anecdotal evidence of people taking children by road to the neighbouring Dominican Republic and planes loading children before they left the airport.
"We have seen over the last years many children being taken out of the country without any legal procedure. This is going on, this is happening now, and we are starting to have the first evidence of that, this is unquestionable," he claimed.
He was unable to give details on the 15 missing children or their condition, or clearly connect the anecdotal observations in Haiti's chaos with trafficking.
The cases were documented by social workers and by partner non-governmental organisations working for UNICEF in hospitals.
Leading charities have urged an immediate moratorium on adoptions until extended efforts are made to trace and reunite children with their relatives, warning that families could be broken up forever.
Legrand underlined that children found alone in Haiti after the quake destroyed homes needed protection and could not be regarded as orphans without proper checks that took weeks or months.
Several aid agencies and Haitian authorities have a network in place to reunite families and avoid "predatory adults," he added.
"Don't forget that Haitian society has a very strong set-up and that there will be a lot of relatives willing to care for children from their own families," said Legrand.
In June, UN human rights expert Gulnara Shahinian raised the alarm about "thousands" of children in Haiti who were trapped in a system known as "restavek," sent by their impoverished parents to work as domestic servants.
Shaninian, the UN special rapporteur on slavery, said it amounted to a "modern form of slavery," now taken over by recruiters who exploited children for financial gain and subjected them to sexual abuse and violence.
"The issue should be put urgently on the highest priority agenda of the Government and the international community", she added, calling for it to be stopped immediately.