Monday, November 5, 2007

The "Darfuri orphans" scandal

There's a lot of sad fallout from this nasty little story about inappropriate actions by a French NGO, L'Arche de Zoé or Zoe's Ark. L'Arche de Zoé have been running an "Operation Darfour", allegedly to evacuate orphans from the war-torn region of the Sudan, to "host families" in Europe who would then fight their asylum claims for them. This is already borderline - their decision to undertake the activity they did placed them on the very edge of IHL - international humanitarian law. (They quote a bunch of legal bases on their website - it's a pity it doesn't include some of the Geneva Convention provisions).

A swoop last week by the Tchadian authorities found that they were shipping out Tchadian kids instead, without their parents' permission. When this scandal broke, we at work were immediately struck by the UN's failure to protest, by the silence of the Red Crosses and other NGOs, by the tenor of the French government's reaction. It was a clear sign that something had gone badly wrong and we were all very glad that it is not one of the NGOs we fund, although I am sure there will be corresponding political fallout.

But there are other victims of this story than the kids themselves. My heart goes out, for instance, to all the parents. First of all the parents in Tchad who were apparently told their kids would be taken to a boarding school at a town nearby in Tchad and educated. They've been sorely betrayed and are not likely to trust another Western NGO, and that's a crying shame. At the other end of the story, there are couples in Europe, the USA and Canada, possibly childless, hoping to become foster parents, ready to fight for an asylum claim for the child they'd welcome into their home. They've possibly unwittingly funded part of this shameful operation as part of a "fostering" fee, and their hopes of fostering have been, at least temporarily, dashed. I feel horribly sorry for them too.

I also feel very sorry for other NGOs working in the fraught field of rescuing children from conflict. Their work has been made no easier by this event and they'll be eyed with suspicion by third world governments for a long time to come. I feel sorry for all the kids and parents they'll not be able to help because of the mistrust this will have caused.

L'Arche de Zoé were set up during the tsunami. The end of funding of that initial crisis probably led them, like many NGOs that found themselves a bit spare at the end of the Balkans crisis, to look for activities elsewhere. If you are a small NGO, and you've had a period of success with an initial mission, you have to consider whether you want to really put in the policy and legal work you are going to need to be able to do your good work within IHL and in coordination with other agencies, or whether it would be a good idea to wind up your activities and call it a day.

It would have been better for all concerned if L'Arche de Zoé had had the sense to call it a day.

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