The drama in Haiti took a new turn when 10 Americans (8 of whom were released this week-- ed.) were arrested as they tried to carry a group of Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. While the American group claimed to be rescuing orphans, the Haitian government accused the group of child trafficking. These conflicting accounts reflect the opposing views in a debate that has been raging ever since the devastating earthquake occurred last month, leaving in question the fate of thousands of displaced and homeless children.
On one side of this debate, for example, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is promoting legislation to speed up the adoption process. "The littlest and most vulnerable victims of the tragedy in Haiti are orphan children," Senator Christopher Bond argued, "and they cannot wait for help." On the other side, several international aid organizations have been calling for a complete suspension of adoptions in order to adequately investigate the orphan status of each displaced child. "Haiti's infrastructure has been severely damaged by the disaster, and with it the systems to ensure that children are correctly identified as orphans," said a statement issued by Save the Children. "The possibility of a child being mistakenly labeled as an orphan during this time is incredibly high."
These arguments seem eerily familiar, and speak to the fact that the United States has yet to develop a well-reasoned policy regarding displaced children in time of crisis. Thirty-five years ago, in April 1975 in Vietnam, another evacuation of children took place. The scene was Saigon, on the brink of collapse as the Communist forces approached the city. The foreign volunteers who ran international adoption programs begged for help getting their wards out of the country. In response, President Gerald Ford authorized funds to evacuate thousands of children, who were flown out of the country and placed with new adoptive families overseas.
By all appearances, Operation Babylift, as the evacuation came to be called, looked like a bold response to a heart-wrenching humanitarian crisis. In Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people had lost their homes; hungry children wandered alone through the streets; foreign aid agencies could not meet the most basic needs of the population. The idea of evacuating displaced children and placing them in loving homes overseas seemed not only wise but also deeply moral.
Today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book,Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government.
I was on my way home from Sri Lanka, sitting in the transit lounge of Heathrow Airport when the earthquake struck Haiti. Several hours later the first film footage began to come in. We sat with our Starbucks and along with everyone else just stared.
Two weeks earlier my son and I had spent December 26th driving up the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. It was the fifth anniversary of the tsunami. We stopped at a couple of beaches and swam along with other Sri Lankans. On the surface it looked like just another day. But it wasn't. How could it be? We have friends over there who will never ever go to the shore again, much less swim in the waters. Others marked the day in their own way. Officially nothing was done by the government. But privately people remembered.
Like most of us, I've spent a lot of time over the past few weeks in front of the television set looking at images of Haiti. We used to live in Sri Lanka. I had written about the tsunami, and so people have asked me if what happened in South Asia in 2004 can teach us anything about how to respond in Haiti. People want answers; I want answers, but the answers aren't easy to come by. We want people not to die in these disasters; we want aid to reach its mark in something approximating a timely manner; and we want to see life returning to normal as soon as possible. Do we have a shot at any of these or am I simply dreaming? I am neither a seismologist nor an aid worker. Like all of us though I am devastated by the disaster, puzzled and irritated by the problems getting aid where it is supposed to go, and wishing things were different. And so I offer here a few thoughts.