Things seem to be going from bad to worse for the six officials of a French non-governmental organization charged with attempted kidnapping in Chad, following their Oct. 25 arrest while trying to airlift 103 children they claimed were Darfur orphans. A total of 16 European nationals will stand trial for involvement in a case that Chadian authorities initially condemned as an illegal money-for-adoption scheme praying on child refugees from war-torn Darfur. If convicted, the six French child aid workers could face 20 years of hard labor in the bizarre affair which has created an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility towards other NGOs working to protect victims of violence in Darfur.
At the heart of the international flap are six French nationals working for child relief NGO Zoe's Ark, who were arrested last Thursday as they prepared to spirit 103 Darfur orphans away from the Chadian city of Abéché on a chartered plane. According to press comments by Zoe's Ark colleagues in France, the unauthorized attempt to hustle the children out of the region flouted administrative procedure to obtain permission. Such time-consuming steps, they say, clashed with the greater humanitarian urgency of getting the orphans to care and safety in France. But Chadian authorities swooped in as the plane prepared to depart, and arrested the Zoe's Ark workers, three French journalists accompanying them, and seven Spanish and Belgian flight crew members on initial suspicions of "kidnapping and child trafficking". Outraged Chadian President Idriss Déby went so far as to accused the group of being "pedophile", and exploiting the refugee crisis in a scheme to sell children to adults willing to pay for adoption back in France.
The French lawyer for Zoe's called the entire matter politically motivated. But that position became harder to defend in the face of claims by another French relief organization that most of the 103 children were neither orphans nor even Sudanese for the most part. Those allegations were reinforced on Thursday when two U.N. agencies said they’d managed to confirm 91 of the children had at least one parent, and most came from Chad. French media reports, meanwhile, quoted residents of Chadian villages claiming they'd seen some of the 103 children lured from their homes into trucks by visiting white people promising candy.
Adoption is not permitted in either Sudan or Chad; and any effort to engineer the adoption of citizens from either country is legally punishable, as are violations of immigration procedures by unauthorized attempts to remove the children from Chad. Adoption arranged by an organization not officially chartered for that function is also prohibited in France. Officials at Zoe's Ark explain their intention was to get the children to safety in France by any means, then initiate extraordinary procedures once on French soil to obtain special refugee status for the children. Though the youngsters were to be placed in foster home for care, Zoe's Ark said that the goal of the program in no way involved adoption for profit or otherwise.
Those assurances notwithstanding, the Chadians aren't the only ones with grave reservations about the NGO's methods or motives. "Taking [children] out in that manner is, in my view, illegal and irresponsible," French Secretary of State on Foreign Affairs and Human Rights Rama Yade told the daily Le Parisien. Yade said she'd warned Zoe's Ark back in August of her concerns about its rumored adoption practices. And while Yade said French officials still don't have enough detail to be able to confirm or refute the charges of child trafficking, she suggested the NGO knew it was playing with fire. "You don't remove children from countries like Chad and Sudan that don't allow adoption," Yade said.
The French Foreign Ministry had aired similar and repeated public misgivings over the Zoe's Ark mission after it began last May. Meanwhile, testimony gathered in France since Thursday's detentions led French legal authorities to open an investigation on the NGO on suspicions of "intermediary activity in unauthorized adoptions". Zoe's Ark officials have responded with repeated statements that their operation did not involve adoption. They've similarly explained that while their care in Chadian camps allowed most of the children to recover from the near fatal conditions they were found in, their continuously fragile physical and mental health requires rapid relocation to a stable environment.
So why the suspicion that the placement of those 103 children with French families were permanent transactions? First off, all of the 103 families paid between $2,800 and $8,400 as part of the process of volunteering that is, money to the NGO above whatever amount caring for the children will cost. Meanwhile, Chadian authorities say the Darfur children taken from refugee centers administered by the NGO showed no signs of hunger or illness that would make their departure urgent. Finally, with neither the nationality nor even exact identity of most children fully established, officials in Chad and France wonder how Zoe's Ark leaders could possibly know if the parents are indeed dead.
The official French criticism of Zoe's Ark and Yade's expression of "solidarity" with Déby and Chadian justice officials pursuing the case has alarmed some French human rights activists over a perceived presumption of guilt in the affair. They also decry Chad's decision to try the three journalists and seven flight crew members for complicity, since they were not actively involved in selecting children for expatriation, nor hustling them aboard the plane. French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday responded by asking Déby to free the French journalists rapidly.
Some see politics playing more of a role in the case than Sarkozy's intervention on the reporters' behalf. Zoe's Ark's French lawyer has pointed out Chadian officials remain angered by a French-inspired plan to deploy European peacekeeping troops to eastern Chad to protect Darfur refugees an attitude he says may motivate what he considers a framing of the Zoe's Ark workers. Déby has denied that allegation, and promised the deployment will be carried out as planned. Despite that, international aid efforts in the region have been undermined by the caper while Zoe's Ark efforts to tend to victims of Darfur's humanitarian crises are now clearly over for good. Meanwhile, other NGOs operating in the area report local populations have begun to regard aid workers with suspicion and hostility, fearful that such humanitarian efforts may be masking more sinister plans.