Kidnap or salvation? Debate rages on Chad children

The sight of frightened, bewildered children torn from their homes by wars or poverty is one of the most recurring and haunting faces of Africa.

But the case of 103 African children who were to be flown out of Chad to Europe by a French group has touched raw nerves on the continent, where trafficking of minors is still widespread and the slave trade is remembered with horror.

It has also sparked a fierce and morally complex debate between those who believe the children would be better off in Europe, far from Africa’s suffering and conflicts, and those outraged at the way they were taken from their African families.

United Nations officials say the children, aged between one and 10 years, whose tearful faces have appeared on TV screens across the world, were not ”war orphans” from Sudan’s Darfur as claimed by the Zoe’s Ark group that had them in their charge.

Nine French nationals, mostly members of Zoe’s Ark, were arrested in east Chad last week after authorities stopped them from flying out the children.

The group has denied wrongdoing, saying it wanted to place the children in foster care with French families and had the right to do so under international law.

But Chad said they had no authorisation to take the infants. The French have been charged with abduction and fraud and face possible forced-labour terms of up to 20 years if convicted.

Seven Spanish air-crew members, a pilot from Belgium and at least two Chadians have been charged as accessories.

A Chadian investigation is under way to determine whether the Zoe’s Ark group were well-meaning philanthropists who broke the rules, or whether their purpose was more mercantile or sinister.

”Was it to sell [the children] to paedophiles? Or take their organs to resell them?” Chadian President Idriss Itno Déby has asked.

In Chad and elsewhere in Africa, the case has kindled anger.

”The slavers of yesterday are modernising their methods … Today, Europeans pass themselves off as dubious humanitarians, [saying] ‘we’ve come to save your children from certain death’ and hup, they’re taken away,” said prominent Chadian opposition politician Ngarlejy Yorongar in a statement.

Moral debate

International radio and TV shows and websites have carried an intense debate over the fate of the children.

”For me, these children were in danger, in a genocide zone. Something had to be done for them,” an African-born listener called Michel told a Radio France International phone-in show.

”I think Zoe’s Ark were clumsy but they can’t be completely condemned,” another listener, Lynette, said. She said her family was one of those planning to foster a child and paid over €2 000 as a ”donation” to cover logistics and reception costs.

Others had sharply different views. ”Please, Europeans, our children are not for sale,” said Okeke Cyprian from Mauritania in an email to the BBC Have Your Say website.

”I will gladly give out my child for adoption [rather] than for her to die of starvation, malnutrition, lack of medical attention … or for her to be uneducated,” said Mah Estela from Cameroon, emailing in to the same programme.

”The Chadian government is making loud noise now, but they did nothing to provide a better future for those kids … Africa wake up and face reality,” she wrote from Douala.

Improvement or exploitation?

While the involvement of white Europeans may inject a dose of xenophobia into the controversy, UN officials say unlawful smuggling of children over borders is common in West Africa.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says poor security and poverty create the conditions for tens of thousands of West African children and women to be trafficked each year for labour and sexual exploitation both in Africa and overseas.

”In a conflict situation, children that are already vulnerable to be trafficked are 10 times more vulnerable,” said UNODC’s representative in West Africa, Antonio Mazzitelli.

”It seems to me that this NGO [Zoe’s Ark] was wrong, if it didn’t have authorisation. You can’t just take over 100 children away without the consent of their parents, even in a conflict situation,” he told Reuters.

Some of the children in Chad, whom UN officials said came from villages on the border with Sudan, told reporters they were lured from their homes with offers of sweets and biscuits.

Parents looking for missing children said foreigners came to their border villages and promised education opportunities to persuade them to allow the infants to be taken to local towns — but they never imagined they were headed for France.

Mazzitelli said trafficking of children in West Africa often took advantage of a cultural tradition of placing children outside the home to secure them better education and jobs.

”We see families handing over kids to third persons, mostly relatives, but also to others who promise to educate them and offer work. But it has become more and more business-oriented and exploitative,” he said.

”There are cases of people going from village to village promising they will give the kids an education and jobs … and then they put them into forced labour,” he added.

This included West African children trafficked to work on cocoa farms, or being pressed into abusive domestic service or prostitution in Europe, the Middle East or the United States. — Reuters

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Pascal Fletcher
Pascal Fletcher has over 70 followers on Twitter.

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