PARIS – The warning was dire: “The children will be dead in a few months,” the French charity said of orphans in Darfur. It asked people to help by paying thousands of dollars to fly them out of the region’s turmoil.
Dozens of French families came forward, offering money for the group and homes for the children. But the French government says the scheme was illegal.
The organizers were arrested Thursday in Africa, leaving a swirl of questions: Were they volunteers for a genuine charity or child traffickers as authorities in Chad claim? Or were they simply misguided people driven by a desire to help?
The group, L’Arche de Zoe (Zoe’s Arc), says it is a three-year-old charity that wanted to save orphans from Sudan’s Darfur region by placing them with French host families. It says it asked the families for $3,400 to help with logistics and chartering a plane, though some contributed smaller or larger amounts.
“This was about saving children, welcoming them into France, declaring them to authorities and placing them with host families so they could get on with their lives,” said Christophe Letien, a spokesman for the group in France.
The French Foreign Ministry denounced the operation, saying children simply could not be swept out of a country without following the right procedures, including strict international regulations to verify they had no living family members.
Starting months ago, “We told (Zoe’s Arc) that we had major reservations every time they talked to us,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said. The ministry said it warned prosecutors about the group’s operations in July, and that an investigation has been opened.
The group was preparing to take 103 children on a flight from neighboring Chad when authorities there arrested nine French citizens Thursday. Ahmat Mahamt Bachir, a Chad Cabinet minister, told RTL radio they were accused of child trafficking.
Back in France, dozens of families were waiting at an airport for the children.
At least one of those arrested, and possibly one or two others, was a journalist covering the event, the French Foreign Ministry said. The spokesman for Zoe’s Arc said Chad was well aware of the group’s operations and that it had letters from Sudan officials documenting the children were orphans.
Following the arrests, the children have been taken into the care of Chadian authorities with the support of UNICEF, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N. refugee agency, French officials said.
French diplomats said there were many questions about the children – including their nationalities and whether all were truly orphans. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said some host families had been told they could adopt the children, though neither Sudan nor Chad authorized such adoptions.
Rama Yade, France’s junior minister for human rights, told Le Parisien newspaper, “Taking them away like that is, from my point of view, illegal and irresponsible.”
Nicolai Panke of the Red Cross said the children were being checked for health problems. Next week, authorities will begin searching for relatives to take them in.