The shocking images of bloodied children walking the streets of quake-hit Haiti will have touched even the hardest of hearts. Here in the west we find it difficult to comprehend how anyone could endure the suffering felt by the people of Haiti – especially the children.
Our desire to help and to reach out to the young people affected is overwhelming – huge donations to charities such as Plan International and DEC are testament to that. In recent days the status of the orphans of Haiti’s earthquake has been the subject of a considerable amount of the coverage in the British press. They have been the focus of aid agency warnings on the potential hazards of rushing through international adoptions. Their fate has also been the subject of arguments in favour of fast tracking this procedure, as opposed to allowing it to, as one commentator put it, be bureaucratised.
It is understandable that well meaning westerners, moved by the plight of these children, may feel an urge to want to whisk them away from Haiti for new lives abroad. But are just adoptions in the best interests of the child? Surely it is not bureaucracy to want to follow all the necessary protocols associated with this process, particularly when you consider these measures concern the protection of children dealing with the traumas of a disaster on this scale.
And surely it is a sensible safety precaution, to want to carry out police checks on any prospective adopters and to get a social worker to visit their homes? 'Do no harm' should be the basis of any humanitarian response to events of this magnitude, especially when it comes to the well being of children. After all no one wishes to see another debacle on a par with the 2007 case of Zoe's Ark, a hasty and ill-judged attempt to rescue young children in Chad who were believed to be Darfur war orphans.
This incident led to 103 youngsters (most of them Chadian), being sent en route to Europe for adoption, while their anxious parents were left to frantically search for them. And not everyone looking to adopt Haiti's quake affected youngsters can be assumed to be kind-hearted, with the most honourable of intentions. Especially when vast sums of money can be made from the trafficking of children and babies.
The 2007 case of the police in the region rescuing 46 children from an agency charging would-be adopters £10,000 in fees to buy babies is a classic case in point. Cases such as these underline why the international community agreed to set up safeguards through the Hague Convention to only enable inter country adoptions that are in the best interests of children. It might be emotionally appealing to want to airlift children out of Haiti after a disaster this scale but such action could result in traumas from which these youngsters may never recover.
A Plan International survey of eight to18-year-olds from southern Asia who had survived the Boxing Day tsunami, found respondents feared being relocated away from their village after this horrendous disaster. This study shows that removing children from their communities, even in situations as grave as the tsunami, risks increasing their distress in a situation which is already very confusing and harrowing for them.
All the evidence shows that the best interests of the child are served by keeping them in their community where they are known and can be cared for. The orphans of Haiti will also need long-term help to deal with the trauma of living through such a horrendous natural disaster.
Children who have personally experienced events of this magnitude need some sense of normality restored to them as soon as possible. That is why Plan has set up safe spaces for children. Just this week Plan has been running child safe zones in the south of the island around the coastal town of Jacmel. The children who have been attending these groups are still living on the streets, too terrified to return to their battered homes or what remains of them. To these youngsters homes are no longer places of safety – they are death traps.
In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami thousands of children who lost their homes and loved ones, received psychosocial support in the form of a routine, counseling in the guise of games and safe spaces to play. This sort of assistance is not dramatic, it doesn’t play well on TV news bulletins, but it’s a vital part of helping children come to terms with this harrowing ordeal.
Plan has worked in Haiti for 37 years and has experience of the needs of the children and their communities at this time. Talk of international adoption is premature and misguided. It is wrong to assume that communities are not able to care or cope.
Marie Staunton is chief executive of Plan UK