Haitian orphans beat red tape

By John Lichfield

More than 100 Haitian orphans arrived in France yesterday to spend Christmas with their new families, ending nearly a year of intense diplomacy.

The children, from 18 months to two years old, flew to Paris after the French Government chartered an aircraft to deliver them to their new homes in time for Christmas.

Delphine Riviere, an English teacher from Lyon, held sleeping 20-month-old Erika and said: "I haven't even heard her speak yet. This is a moment of pure joy."

Like other parents, Riviere and her husband had all but completed the adoption procedures for Erika before an earthquake devastated Haiti last January.

All the adoption documents, including Erika's birth certificate, were lost in the destruction of government buildings.

Her departure for France - and that of 300 other small children - was held up by the lack of paperwork, the post-earthquake confusion and, allegedly, the doubts and suspicions of former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Kouchner, one of the founders of the relief organisation Medecins sans Frontieres, is said to have feared that France could be accused of child-napping, like the US missionaries who tried unsuccessfully to take 33 children out of Haiti this year.

Since he left the Foreign Ministry last month, his successor, Michele Alliot-Marie, has cut through red tape to reach an agreement with authorities in Port-au-Prince about the orphans.

The French Foreign Ministry chartered the first flight to bring in 114 children yesterday. Another 90 are expected to arrive on a second flight tomorrow. The cost to the French taxpayer is €550,000 ($970,500).

The cases of another 37 children are still being studied. Others have been collected by wealthier parents, who flew to Haiti on scheduled flights.

Alliot-Marie, on hand to greet the children and the waiting parents, said: "These children are arriving with no legal doubts about their status whatsoever."

Valerie Damilleville, welcoming her new son Jean, aged 19 months, said: "Everything is ready for him. I've got warm clothes, a teddy bear, woolly socks, little shoes, little overalls, games, biscuits, a milk bottle ..."

A team of 10 paediatricians was waiting at the airport to examine the children and check for signs of the cholera which has killed more than 2500 people in Haiti in recent weeks.

All the children came from camps and orphanages clear of the disease.

Emmanuelle Guerry, of the parents' pressure group SOS Haiti Enfants, said that although it was fitting that the children had reached their new homes in time for the Christmas festivities, the problem should have been resolved much sooner. Canada and the United States had come to similar agreements with Haiti last April.

"Bernard Kouchner had no respect for the [adoptive] families," she said. "He suspected we were child stealers but all the adoption procedures were under way before the earthquake."

DEADLY TOLL

* 2591 people have died of cholera in Haiti

* 121,518 people have been treated for the disease

* 45 people have been lynched by mobs

* 14 were accused of cholera-linked witchcraft

- Independent

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