Home | News    Saturday 27 October 2007

Questions over plan for Darfur children


October 26, 2007 (PARIS) — The warning was dire: "The children will be dead in a few months," the French charity said of orphans in Darfur. It asked people to help by paying thousands of dollars to fly them out of the region’s turmoil.

Dozens of French families came forward, offering money for the group and homes for the children. But the French government says the scheme was illegal.

The organizers were arrested Thursday in Africa, leaving a swirl of questions: Were they volunteers for a genuine charity or child traffickers as authorities in Chad claim? Or were they simply misguided people driven by a desire to help?

The group, L’Arche de Zoe (Zoe’s Arc), says it is a 3-year-old charity that wanted to save orphans from Sudan’s Darfur region by placing them with French host families. It says it asked the families for $3,400 to help with logistics and chartering a plane, though some contributed smaller or larger amounts.

"This was about saving children, welcoming them into France, declaring them to authorities and placing them with host families so they could get on with their lives," said Christophe Letien, a spokesman for the group in France.

The French Foreign Ministry denounced the operation, saying children simply could not be swept out of a country without following the right procedures, including strict international regulations to verify they had no living family members.

Starting months ago, "We told (Zoe’s Arc) that we had major reservations every time they talked to us," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said. The ministry said it warned prosecutors about the group’s operations in July, and that an investigation has been opened.

Zoe’s Arc recruited support on its Web site with a message reading: "The survival of these children depends on action. Now! The children will be dead in a few months."

The message expressed frustration with traditional channels to help Darfur, which has suffered 4 1/2 years of conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced.

"We must get out of the mind-set of sterile political speeches, humanitarian excuses and interminable diplomatic negotiations," the site says.

The group was preparing to take 103 children on a flight from neighboring Chad when authorities there arrested nine French citizens Thursday. Ahmat Mahamt Bachir, a Chad Cabinet minister, told RTL radio they were accused of child trafficking.

Back in France, dozens of families were waiting at an airport for the children.

At least one of those arrested, and possibly one or two others, was a journalist covering the event, the French Foreign Ministry said. The spokesman for Zoe’s Arc said it heard that Chadian authorities beat those in custody, including nurses and paramedics. He also said Chad was well aware of the group’s operations and that it had letters from Sudan officials documenting the children were orphans.

Following the arrests, the children have been taken into the care of Chadian authorities with the support of UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. refugee agency, French officials said.

French diplomats said there were many questions about the children — including their nationalities and whether all were truly orphans. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said some host families had been told they could adopt the children, though neither Sudan nor Chad authorized such adoptions.

Rama Yade, France’s junior minister for human rights, told Le Parisien newspaper, "Taking them away like that is, from my point of view, illegal and irresponsible."

Nicolai Panke of the Red Cross said the children were being checked for health problems. Next week, authorities will begin searching for relatives to take them in.

"With the experience we have in Sudanese refugee camps ... there are rarely orphans who are separated from their whole families," he said.

The French Foreign Ministry expressed sympathy for families who had expected to welcome children into their homes. Dozens slept in tents overnight at an airport in Vatry, east of Paris, expecting the children to arrive Thursday.

A French consular official was in Chad on Friday meeting the detainees, while representatives of the families seeking to host the children met with diplomats in Paris, Andreani said.

Pascale Moreau, a mother of five, said she gave the organization $2,860 and had planned to take in a child.

"Why did I take action?" she said. "Because (the conflict) in Darfur has been going on for four years, and all the humanitarian groups say the same thing, that nothing is improving there."


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