Monday, October 29, 2007

Children Rescue – An Aborted Babylift

On October 25, officials in Chad arrested nine French people on suspicion of child trafficking at Abeche, near the Chad-Darfur border as they attempted to fly 103 African children to France. The arrested consisted of six escorts and three French journalists. Also detained were the seven members of the charter plane’s crew, all Spanish citizens and the pilot, a Belgian citizen.

The French group is from L’Arche de Zoe (Zoe’s Ark), a Paris-based charity who now face charges including child abduction and fraud. The group was formed by motoring enthusiasts initially to aid victims from the December 2004 Asian tsunami. Earlier this year, Zoe’s Ark turned its attention to bringing orphans from Sudan’s Darfur region to France for adoption. Around 300 French families are reported to have paid between 2,800 and 6,000 euros each ($4,000 to $8,600) to Zoe’s Ark to adopt a child from Darfur.

The group chartered a plane scheduled to leave eastern Chad to deliver children to French waiting families. The children were aged between one and ten years old. The group is also alleged to have forged visa documents for the children.

Upon arrest, the charity workers were wearing t-shirts with the slogan bearing the name of the operation: “Children Rescue.” Although Zoe’s Ark had reportedly said the children needed to be evacuated to France for medical reasons, all appeared to be in good health. One official from UNICEF said some of the children were wearing bandages but there were no injuries found underneath them.

Officials from Chad, France and UNICEF have all denounced the operation as a violation of international and Sudanese law. Chad’s president, Irdriss Deby, called the operation “inhuman” and “unthinkable” and that those responsible would be severely punished. He is quoted as saying:

These people ... treat us like animals. So this is the image of the savior Europe, which gives lessons to our countries. This is the image of Europe which helps Africans.

According to the French Foreign Ministry, “Chad, like Sudan – from where the children could have come – are sovereign states that do not authorize adoption. It is currently absolutely impossible for a French family to launch a procedure to adopt a Chadian or Sudanese child.”

In April, Zoe’s Ark had issued a press release saying it wanted to evacuate 10,000 orphans from Darfur. In the statement, the organization said, “We must act to save these children. Now! In a few months, they will be dead.” In August, the French Foreign Ministry had issued a warning about Zoe’s Ark, saying there was no guarantee the children they were helping were orphans. Since the warning, one French diplomat said Zoe’s Ark had stopped saying its aim was to have the children adopted: “They explained that these children would first be housed in France, and we understand that they then explained to the (host) families that there would be a legal battle afterwards to have them adopted.”

The secretary-general of Zoe’s Ark denies the child trafficking charges. Stephanie Lefebvre said, “We never intended for them to be adopted. Our action plan was simple. We wanted to save them from death, by giving them a host family.”

Another Zoe’s Ark representative, Christophe Letien, stated, “this was urgent humanitarian action and not children-trafficking.” Zoe’s Ark website claimed its plan to bring children from Darfur to Europe is justified by the Geneva Convention and international law. It’s reported that Zoe’s Ark gathered prospective adoptive parents from the internet.

A court in Paris is also reported to have launched a criminal investigation into the matter. French police have been investigating Zoe’s Ark’s activities since July.

The prospective families insist they had a right to “save them from death” and planned to protest outside the Chad embassy in Paris. According to one prospective father/host, “local tribal chiefs have guaranteed to the association that each child had lost its entire family and had been abandoned.” One prospective mother/host said she was shocked by how the events were being portrayed, “It is absolutely heinous that the authorities suspect we played a role in child-trafficking. The volunteers at [Zoe’s Ark] are so dedicated. It’s sacrilege to treat them as child traffickers.”

UNICEF officials are attempting to locate the families of the children who are currently being cared for by UNICEF, UNHCR, the Red Cross and other groups. One Red Cross official said that based on its experience in Sudanese refugee camps, there are rarely orphans who are separated from their whole families. UNICEF and the Chadian government said the majority of the children appeared to be Chadian, not Darfurian, and did not appear to be orphans.

Most disturbing are some of the accounts from the children themselves. Some reports state that the children were enticed by candy to leave their homes. One child said:

My parents had gone to work in the fields. As we were playing some
Chadians came and said, "Here are some sweets, why don't you follow us to Adre
and then we'll take you home? We spent seven days in Adre, and I've been
here in Abeche for more than one month. We were well fed by the whites,
there was always food. I would like to go back to find my parents.

Another child said:

A car came with two whites and one black man who spoke Arabic. The
driver said, "Come with me, I'll give you some money and biscuits and then I'll
take you home. We were taken to the white people's house and they gave us
medicine -- small white tablets. I was not ill. All the children
were given pills. They told us that we would no longer be able to go

Another child said:

Whites came and said they would enrol us in school. They came to talk with
our father and he allowed us to go with them. They said they would train us and
that when we are grown up we would get a vehicle.

Social workers treating the children report that they are traumatised, and that the constant flow of visitors and journalists are disrupting the children. And humanitarian aid workers fear being targeted; some cars of aid workers have been pelted with stones. One Chadian social worker sums it up this way:

France and other foreigners made us (Chad) sign a convention on children's
rights. But to our surprise, it was the French themselves who came to take our children, even though they know the law. They didn't respect us. They came in silence to set up their office and kidnap our children.


Chad to charge French with abduction: prosecutor, Washington Post, October 29, 2007

'Charges near' in Chad child row, BBC News, October 29, 2007

Ordeal of Chad children in 'kidnap' row, BBC News, October 29, 2007

Profile: Zoe's Ark, BBC News, October 29, 2007

Prison 'likely' in Chad child row, BBC News, October 29, 2007

Adoption workers accused of luring Chadian children with candy, International Herald Tribune, October 29, 2007

Belgian pilot arrested in Chad accused of trafficking children, People's Daily Online, October 29, 2007

Europeans risk kidnapping charge over Chad 'adoptions', Yahoo!News, October 28, 2007

French charity blamed for child smuggling, ArcaMax Publishing, October 27, 2007

Bewildered infants await fate in Chad orphanage, Reuters, October 27, 2007

Questions Over Plan for Darfur Children, Sudan Tribune, October 27, 2007

Chad vows to punish French for child smuggling bid, Reuters, October 26, 2007

Charity adoption workers seized at airport for 'trafficking' children, Times Online, October 26, 2007

Authorities Arrest French Attempting to Fly 103 Children Out of Chad, VOA News, October 26, 2007

French NGO Accused of Trafficking Children, UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, October 26, 2007

UN and aid groups criticise 'humanitarian mercenaries', Guardian Unlimited, October 26, 2007

French group under investigation over Darfur adoptions, Yahoo!News UK & Ireland, October 26, 2007

Questions Over Plan for Darfur Children, Sudan Tribune, October 27, 2007

Chad stops group from flying 103 children to France, Reuters, October 25, 2007

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Usha, for a really good summary of a disastrous situation.

    Lately it has been really disturbing me that even stories like this don't get rile the mainstream like they do those who are tuned into adoption fraud - the "well they're bound to have a better life somewhere else" attitude that sweeps away the utter illegality of what has happened. It's frustrating and frightening.