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Dana Sachs: Learning from Past Mistakes: Operation Babylift and the Haitian Orphan Debate

Today's post is from Dana Sachs, author of The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. Sachs has written about Vietnam for twenty years. The author of two books, Sachs teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and lives in North Carolina.

Book Cover for Operation BabyliftThe 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.

But wait. Vietnam then, like Haiti now, lay in ruins. Although most of the children evacuated during Operation Babylift were legitimate orphans, a significant number were not. At the evacuation receiving centers on the U.S. mainland, Vietnamese-language interpreters reported that some of the children were crying for their parents. It turned out that many of those parents, convinced that their children would die in Vietnam, had made the harrowing choice to put their sons and daughters on the planes. Other parents, who had left their children in orphanages temporarily because they didn’t have the means to care for them, would later return to find their children gone, the orphanages empty. The international community, which had tried to secure the safety of the children by sending them abroad, had made no provision for reuniting families once the crisis ended. Almost none of those children ever saw their parents again. As one State Department official lamented at the time, "I'll tell you what this is turning into... It's starting to become a kidnapping operation by well-intentioned people who are ignoring international law."

This time, we must do better. Haiti has a well-documented history of child-trafficking, and, as Christopher de Bono, a Unicef spokesman, told the New York Times recently, "In orphanages in Haiti there are an awful lot of children who are not orphans."

As we witness the suffering in Haiti, we feel an understandable need to act. Rushing the adoptions of a projected 900 more Haitian children may seem like a legitimate response to the crisis. Days after the earthquake, CBS’ Katie Couric called an expedited airlift of children from Port-au-Prince, "a happy story from Haiti for a change." These kinds of efforts naturally appeal to our compassion and desire to help. But we heard similar appeals years ago in regard to the airlift out of Vietnam. Placing these Haitian children in loving homes may indeed seem like a happy story among so many tragic ones, but adoption remains a complicated process. We must, particularly in the midst of this chaos, move with caution. Otherwise, we will address the tragedies of Haiti by blithely creating new ones.