Monday, February 1, 2010

Ten American Christians arrested in Haiti trying to take 33 orphans out of the country

Ten American Christians arrested in Haiti trying to take 33 orphans out of the country

By Sue Reid
Last updated at 9:14 AM on 01st February 2010

Ten Americans have been arrested after allegedly trying to smuggle 33 children out of earthquake-stricken Haiti.

The Baptist church group claimed they were on a mission to rescue orphans of the disaster.

But last night the Haitian authorities accused the group of child trafficking and ‘abduction’.

Enlarge Arrested: Eight of the accused, including leader Laura Silsby, second from right, at police headquarters in Port-au-Prince

They said the five men and five women had no paperwork authorising them to take the children, who are aged between two months and 12 years, across the border into the Dominican Republic.

The group, from the Idaho-based charity New Life Children’s Refuge, were stopped at Malpasse, Haiti’s main border crossing, after police conducted a search of their bus.

Officers said they were arrested because they did not have proof that the youngsters - many of whom were sick and dehydrated - were orphans.

And they pointed out that although the leader of the detained group claimed to be taking the children to an orphanage, the building is still in the planning stages.

Prime Minister of Haiti Max Bellerive said yesterday he was outraged by the group's 'illegal trafficking of children' in a country long afflicted by the problem.

Abducted? Some of the children suspected to have been taken by the charity
But some parents say they would part with their children if it would mean a better life.

Adonis Helman, 44, one of some 20 Haitian parents interviewed at a tent camp yesterday said: 'Some parents I know have already given their children to foreigners.'

'I've been thinking how I will choose which one I may give - probably my youngest.'

The arrests will renew concerns about child abduction, which has blighted Haiti for years. Even before the 7.0 earthquake struck on January 12, killing as many as 200,000, around 2,000 youngsters were believed to be being taken from the streets each year.

Aid groups say 500,000 children have either been made homeless or are in orphanages following the quake, and that rumours of child trafficking are circulating. In response, Haiti’s government has imposed strict controls on adoptions amid fears traffickers could exploit the current chaos.

Although hundreds of children have been flown to the U.S. to meet new parents, most were already in the process of being adopted before the disaster.

The 33 children, aged between 2 months to 12 years, have been taken to an orphanage run by Austrian-based SOS Children’s Villages, which is trying to find their parents or close relatives.

A spokesman said: ‘One child, an eight-year-old, said she thought she was going to some sort of summer camp in the Dominican Republic.

'She was crying, and saying, "I am not an orphan. I still have my parents".'

Desperate: A crowd gathers hoping to receive food distributed by U.S. Army 82nd Airborne soldiers in the Cite Soleil neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince yesterday
Yves Cristalin, Haiti’s social affairs minister, said: ‘This is totally illegal. It is an abduction, not an adoption. What is important is that a child needs to have authorisation to leave the country.’

Deb Barry, a protection expert at Save the Children, which wants a moratorium on new adoptions said: 'The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake.'

'The possibility of a child being scooped up and mistakenly labelled an orphan in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster is incredibly high.'

But Laura Silsby, the group’s leader, insisted last night that they had done nothing wrong.

At a police station next to the airport in the capital Port-au-Prince, she said: ‘We came here to help and we know God will reveal the truth.

‘I was going to come back and do the paperwork. They accuse us of children trafficking. This is something I would never do. We were not trying to do something wrong - we had permission from the Dominican Republic government to bring the children to an orphanage we have there.

‘We have a Baptist minister here in Port-au-Prince whose orphanage totally collapsed and he asked us to take the children.’

Arrested: More than 50 people looted an electrical appliance shop here on Friday. U.S. soldiers and Haiti policemen detained them after a gun battle

Enlarge Held: Looters are detained at an electric appliance shop in Port-au-Prince. One man was shot dead
Sean Lankford, whose wife and daughter are among those arrested, said the group had rented hotel rooms to house the children until an orphanage could be built.

‘It really is shocking because it really is a rescue mission for these children,’ he added.

‘They’re really hoping to save their lives.’

The charity is buying land to build a home for up to 150 orphans and provide a place for adoptive parents who want to take the children back to the U.S, he said.

Clint Henry, pastor of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, which founded the group, said: ‘I know that there has been illegal activity down there and it’s unfortunate that we would be associated with that.

‘I don’t know what to say but God is in control and he’s got it figured out and we’re trusting him. It probably comes down to paperwork and we believed that we had done everything we needed to do.’

Enlarge In ruins: A man balances a coffin on his head in Port-au-Prince as he passes a collapsed building

Max Beauvoir, head of Haiti's Voodoo Priest's Association, which represents thousands of priests and priestesses, said: 'There are many who come here with religious ideas that belong more in the time of the inquisition.

'These types of people believe they need to save our souls and our bodies from ourselves. We need compassion, not proselytising now, and we need aid - not just aid going to people of the Christian faith.'

Two-thirds of Haiti's 9 million population are said to practice Voodoo, a melange of beliefs from parts of west Africa and Catholicism.

A Haitian judge is expected to hear the case today to decide whether to bring charges against the group.

Relief workers in Haiti have begun to hand out women-only food coupons to ensure the most vulnerable receive aid supplies.

They said young men often force their way to the front of queues and even overpower women and children to get the best aid.

The UN World Food Program coupons can be exchanged at 16 sites and give a family 25kg (55lbs) of rice, which lasts a fortnight.

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