The possibility of child trafficking in Haiti following that country's devastating earthquake has become a top concern for the United Nations organization that oversees the welfare of children.

Many children have been separated from their parents or caregivers because of the Jan. 12 earthquake, according to the United Nations Children's Fund, making them potential victims of trafficking or sexual exploitation.

"In this type of emergency, children are unfortunately the most vulnerable, especially those who have been abandoned," UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau told a news briefing. 

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Haitian children line up to receive food at a food distribution site run by the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday. ((Gerald Herbert/Associated Press))

UNICEF acknowledged it had received reports of violence against children in Haiti since the quake but would not provide details. 

Canadian pastor searches for orphans

The reports have made it difficult for one Canadian pastor who cares for orphans in Gonaives, located about 150 kilometres north of Port-au-Prince.

Pastor Noel Ismonin has been scouring camps of Haitians left homeless by the quake for orphans to bring back to Gonaives with him, but has found his offers sometimes rejected outright.

"They're going to be abused," cried one Haitian man at one tent city, to Ismonin's dismay.

Later, a man offered to sell Ismonin a young boy in his care for $50. Ismonin refused.

"We're not trying to take these kids away from their families," Ismonin told CBC News. "I want to help those who have no mother or father or support for the future."

UNICEF has partnered with the Haitian government, Red Cross and Save the Children, a non-profit organization, also to identify and register unaccompanied children wandering the chaotic streets of the capital Port-au-Prince, and to re-unite them with their families when possible.

'Family re-unification must be favoured.'—Veronique Taveau, UNICEF spokeswoman

"UNICEF's position has always been that whatever the humanitarian situation, family reunification must be favoured," said Taveau.

"If parents are dead or unaccounted for, efforts should be made to reunite a child with his or her extended family, including grandparents," she said.

Countries amend adoption laws

Many countries, including Canada, the United States and the Netherlands, have amended their adoption policies to make it easier for citizens to adopt children from Haiti.

Canada has said it would step up processing of immigration applications from Haitians who have Canadian relatives. Haitians temporarily in Canada would be allowed to extend their stay and priority consideration would be given to pending adoption cases.

The United States will temporarily allow entry to orphaned children from Haiti to receive care, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Monday.

Its "humanitarian parole policy" will be applied to children legally confirmed as orphans who are eligible for adoption in another country by the Haitian government and are being adopted by U.S. citizens.

With files from The Canadian Press