NGOs work to clear their name after child ‘trafficking’

Aid agencies and authorities in eastern Chad are urging local people not to lose confidence in the international humanitarian community, after members of a French association claiming to rescue Sudanese orphans from the war in Darfur were charged with fraud and abduction of minors.

Six members of the Paris-based group L’Arche de Zoé (Zoe’s Ark) were arrested on 25 October at the Abéché airport in eastern Chad, as they were preparing to take 103 children to host families in France. The Chadian government has accused them of child trafficking. Under Chad's legal system they could face up to 20 years of forced labour.

“Many [non-governmental organisations (NGOs)] working with children were a little bit afraid that the practices that Zoé’s Ark had used would appear as the norm, which is absolutely not the case,” said Aurélie Lamazière, of Save the Children UK’s emergencies department.

A committee of 21 NGOs working in eastern Chad, including Save the Children, Oxfam, and Action against Hunger, has signed a joint statement expressing “profound concern” over the incident, calling it a “serious violation” of the children’s rights.

“Since our arrival in Chad, we have worked very closely with the Chadian and Sudanese communities to assure that their basic needs are met,” the statement says. “We have always respected the rights of children in the communities we serve, and we will continue to integrate these fundamental principles into our work.”

In a 26 October joint statement UN agencies operating in Chad said they learned of the attempted evacuation with “indignation” and “deplore that such acts would alter the serious work that the majority of international NGOs in Chad have been developing for decades, in respect of national laws and international standards.”

Members of L’Arche de Zoé have insisted they were simply trying to save the children’s lives, and that they had full authorisation from the Chadian government. None of the charges against the group has been proven in court.

In Sudan’s Darfur region, on the border with Chad, armed conflict pitting government forces and allied militia against rebel groups has killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced 2.2 million since 2003. Around 230,000 Sudanese refugees are living in camps in eastern Chad, which is itself plagued by violence that has displaced 180,000.

Save the Children estimates that at least half of the Chadian displaced and Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad are children.

Confusion

Locally, L’Arche de Zoé is reported to have another name, Children Rescue, which translates in Arabic (one of two official languages in Chad) to Save the Children.

“There was some confusion at the beginning,” Lamazière said. “We clarified that immediately with the local authorities,” who then broadcast messages on local radio clarifying that Save the Children and other NGOs “had nothing to do with these activities.”

Pahimi Padacké Albert, Chadian Minister of Justice, told IRIN: “This act should not be confused with all the important humanitarian work being done for the Chadian people. It’s an NGO that operated outside of the norms.”

Fear

Some humanitarian workers had expressed fear that this event would make their work more difficult, as local populations would paint all NGOs with the same brush.

“People are hearing that a Western NGO is trafficking children. It’s a real problem,” said Makbidji Henri, a Chadian national who has worked with various international aid organisations. “When we want to work with children or the elderly, people will ask if there isn’t a hidden agenda.”

But according to Roland Van Hauwermeiren, Chad country director for Oxfam Great Britain and spokesperson for the committee of NGOs, in the days following the arrests, the activities of other NGOs have not been affected.

“We continue delivering services as ever before,” he said. “The population is smart enough to make differences.”

The children are now in an orphanage in Abéché, in the care of the Chadian Ministry of Social Affairs, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross. They have received food, clothes and recreational materials, and will be returned to their families in Tiné, Adré and Goz Béïda, an aid official said.

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