By A.D. McKenzie
PARIS, Jan 23, 2010 (IPS) – Thirty-three children from Haiti arrived in France to adoptive parents Friday evening, as charities and international organisations differed on whether adoptions should be speeded up or halted while the search for relatives continues.
Earlier in the week, France announced that it would expedite the entry of children who were already in the process of being adopted, and several non-government groups here have called for increased measures to bring Haitian children more quickly into France.
But the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and some aid agencies say there should be a moratorium on new adoptions, warning that vulnerable children could be at risk of trafficking or abuse, for instance. UNICEF said some 15 children had gone missing from hospitals in Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The organisation’s executive director Ann Veneman said in a statement that every possible effort should be made to reunite children with their families.
“Only if that proves impossible, and after proper screening has been carried out, should permanent alternatives like adoption be considered by the relevant authorities,” she stated. “Screening for international adoption for some Haitian children had been completed prior to the earthquake. Where this is the case, there are clear benefits to speeding up their travel to their new homes.”
France has the highest number of adopted Haitian children, with 600 adopted last year and more than 700 adopted in 2008, according to officials. In the coming weeks, a further 276 are expected to begin new lives among families with whom they had already been matched prior to the earthquake, the French foreign ministry said.
Other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany and Spain, are also pushing through adoption applications, along with the United States and Canada.
Plan International, one of the world’s oldest international charities focusing on the rights and needs of children, says it supports UNICEF’s stance.
“We have a pretty clear and firm position, and the views of UNICEF and Plan International are very much alike,” Rosemary McCarney, chief executive of Plan Canada told IPS in a telephone interview. “Children are at their most vulnerable in disasters and sometimes we cannot tell if children are without parents or relatives, so we need to put in place a tracing mechanism.
“The worse thing we can do is to move them out of the community and to lose track of them or to have them bond with a new family when their extended family are looking for them. It’s very important to move slowly with regards to adoption and move very quickly with regards to making sure these children are safe and are being cared for by responsible adults.”
McCarney added, however, that if children were already in a process of formal adoption, then Plan supported governments’ expediting of the process but without being less vigilant about the protection of the child.
“You can speed up the process but not cut corners,” she said. “We must keep in mind that the first best choice is to have children with family members. And the second best choice is to have them in their own community with responsible adults taking care of them.”
Before the earthquake, Haiti already had a serious problem with children being the target of traffickers. According to a U.N. report, “as many as 2,000 children a year were being trafficked to the Dominican Republic, often with their parents’ consent.”
The death toll as well as the destruction of homes, schools and orphanages has increased this threat, as countless children have been left to fend for themselves, often with injuries that need treatment.
For those children without adults to care for them, being taken in by families abroad is a chance for survival, adoption supporters say. The children who arrived in France Friday came from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince and reportedly have no parents or relatives to take charge of them.
Ranging in age from one to six years, they were welcomed at Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris, by French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and by their adoptive families.
“She is beautiful. We’re delighted she’s here,” one father commented about his new daughter to the media.
Officials said the children would also meet with medical experts to receive possible treatment for psychological trauma from the earthquake.
In Haiti itself, aid groups such as Plan, which has been working in the country for the past 30 years, said they were creating safe places for children to give them a sense of stability and normalcy. More than 40 percent of Haiti’s population is estimated to be under 12 years old, and groups say these youngsters have to be the focus in the reconstruction effort.
“Rebuilding Haiti is a long-term process which will take at least 10 years,” McCarney of Plan said. “During this time, children are going to go from childhood to adulthood. They are going to be the ones we are counting on. So it’s important that we rebuild starting with the children. It’s not going to be easy, but it is the Haitians who can re-imagine Haiti as it should be.”