Abeche — More than 100 children are in the custody of Chadian social services after members of a non-governmental organisation who said they were "rescuing" them from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region were arrested on their way to France.
Chadian authorities on 25 October arrested nine French citizens at the airport in the eastern town of Abéché as they were allegedly trying to take 103 children to Vatry International Airport, some 150km east of Paris, where 50 French families were reportedly waiting to take them in.
A Paris-based organisation, L'Arche de Zoé (Zoé's Ark), had announced in a 28 April press release that it wanted to evacuate 10,000 orphans from Darfur, where 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.
"We must act to save these children. Now! In a few months, they will be dead," the organisation said in the statement.
Some media reported that the children - aged one to nine according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) - were orphaned and sick and being evacuated to receive health care. One humanitarian worker in Chad told IRIN some of the children had bandaged limbs.
But later UNHCR said the children were found to be in good health. The Chadian Minister of the Interior and Public Safety, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, told media the children were not all orphans. Some of the children are believed to be Chadians, but UNHCR and other bodies have yet to complete verification of their origins.
Over 200,000 people who have fled Darfur are in eastern Chad, which is itself plagued with ethnic violence.
The Associated Press has reported that the members of L'Arche de Zoé had documents showing that the children were orphans.
"The evacuation of these Chadian and Sudanese children, unbeknownst to local authorities, is not normal," said Gen. Touka Ramadan Koreï, governor of Chad's eastern Ouaddaï region. "Chad is a lawful country. We cannot allow such a situation."
He added, "Only the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, is responsible for movement of Sudanese refugees settled in the east of Chad."
Chad and Sudan do not allow international adoption, and L'Arche de Zoé had "no official authorisation" to take the children, Chadian Minister Bachir is quoted as saying.
But the head of L'Arche de Zoé has told a French newspaper that the organisation was not setting up adoptions and meant no harm when it planned the operation, which is now being termed an illegal kidnapping and possibly child-trafficking.
...International law allows it as much as morality requires it...
"For us, it was never, and I insist never, a question of being an adoption agency," Stéphanie Lefebvre, secretary general of L'Arche de Zoé, told Le Parisien. "These children were not destined for adoption. Our approach was simple: We just wanted to save them from death by offering them a host family." The group's website says it seeks to help children gain refugee status abroad while hostilities are ongoing in their home countries.
"International law allows it as much as morality requires it," the website states.
"I assure you the Chadian authorities gave us all necessary authorisation," Lefebvre added. The Chadian authorities disagree.
Lefebvre said 300 families had agreed to host children, paying up to 2,400 euros (US$3,450) each.
Delphine Philibert, who on 26 October was still waiting at the airport for the 5-year-old boy she was to take home, told Le Parisien she was shocked by the way events had been portrayed.
"It is absolutely heinous that the authorities suspect we played a role in child-trafficking," Philibert said. "The volunteers at [L'Arche de Zoé] are so dedicated. It's sacrilege to treat them as child traffickers."
The children, now in the custody of the Chadian Ministry of Social Affairs, have received food, water, blankets, mattresses and clothes.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), UNHCR, the Red Cross and Chadian officials are caring for the children until they can be returned to where they came from, Annette Rehrl, UNHCR spokesperson in Chad, told IRIN.
The Chadian prime minister has vowed to punish those trying to move the children. Media reports said France has also denounced L'Arche de Zoé's operation.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]