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Haiti 'orphan' rescue mission: Adoption or child trafficking?

This weekend's arrest of 10 members of an Idaho-based Baptist charity for trying to take 33 Haitian children across the border with the Dominican Republic without proper paperwork has become an international incident.

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Not orphans?

The purpose of New Life's "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" was to "rescue Haitian orphans abandoned on the streets, makeshift hospitals or from collapsed orphanages in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, and bring them to New Life Children's Refuge in Cabarete, Dominican Republic."

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But on Sunday it began to emerge that many of the children were not even orphans, reports Agence France-Presse.

"The majority of these children have families. Some of the older ones said their parents are alive, and some gave an address and phone numbers," said Patricia Vargas, the regional director of the Austria-based orphan charity SOS Children, which is now looking after the 33 children at its orphanage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Déjà vu

The whole episode in Haiti is reminiscent of another orphan debacle in the African nation of Chad that the Monitor reported on in 2007. Back then, 16 Europeans from a France-based group called Zoe's Ark were charged with trying to smuggle 103 children out of eastern Chad in what the charity workers said was an attempt to save orphans affected by the conflict across the border in Sudan's Darfur region.

The group tried to circumvent Chadian authorities and fly the children out of the country on a chartered plane. But after it emerged that many of the children were not orphans or from Darfur, locals in Abéché, Chad, began protesting angrily outside the group's local offices. Western aid groups in the area began to fear for their safety as mistrust of foreigners began to swirl.

A few months later, six French members of Zoe's Ark were convicted of attempting to kidnap the 103 children and sentenced to eight years of hard labor and ordered to pay restitution amounting to close to $9 million.

Chad's president, Idriss Deby – a longtime beneficiary of French military and financial support – eventually pardoned the group and they were returned to France.

But not before significant damage had been done, as the Monitor reported.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the case played powerfully as an instance of white colonial arrogance; in France, it was seen as a misguided effort to save lives; and among humanitarian groups it has been seen as the kind of mission that puts experienced, professional aid workers at risk.

Awaiting a decision

Back in Haiti, Justice Secretary Amarick Louis said a commission would meet today to determine whether the New Life group would go before a judge.

Meanwhile, the group is praying for a little leniency.

"We are trusting the truth will be revealed and we are praying for that," said Silsby.

Back in Idaho at the Central Valley Baptist Church where five of the 10 arrested workers attend services, the Rev. Clint Henry told CNN that the whole community is disturbed by the events, but praying for understanding.

Said Mr. Henry: "We are praying that the motive and intent will be clearly understood in the courts down there."

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