by Stefania Bianchi
(IPS) BRUSSELS -- Proposals to provide temporary shelter in Europe to children orphaned in the tsunami disaster have evoked a debate about their welfare.
Leading rights groups say this could lead to child trafficking among other difficulties.
The dispute arose after European Union (EU) commissioner for justice, freedom and security Franco Frattini indicated last week that Europe could offer temporary refuge to thousands of affected children.
Frattini told the Italian newspaper la Republica on Jan. 7 that he envisages bringing children from the South Asian countries hit by the disaster to Europe for several months. He said this would allow them to recover from the shock and to escape criminal gangs reportedly targeting orphans.
"There are thousands of European families ready to take them in," the former Italian foreign minister told the paper.
Frattini said the 25-member bloc has provisions for "temporary shelter for people from countries hit by calamities or natural catastrophes." But this would require an extension of the EU's temporary asylum regulations, and such legislative changes could take a long time.
"At the moment these norms are valid only for adults," Frattini said. "My proposal is to extend this to children, allowing children in the areas devastated by the tsunami to come to Europe, spend some months here and then return home."
Under similar provisions, children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia in 1986 were able to stay temporarily with host families in Europe.
Frattini's spokesperson Pietro Petrucci said the proposals were at an early stage and that the EU was also considering other measures. "So far this is totally informal," he said. "It's food for thought."
Several European leaders have already rejected the proposals. "It is better to help these children in their own environment," Dutch development minister Agnes Van Ardenne told Dutch media over the weekend. "They already have to deal with a lot of emotional problems."
Many children's groups agree. They say such a move could worsen the trauma.
The International Federation Terre des Hommes, a confederation of children's groups, says the EU is sending out the wrong messages.
"The EU is giving a wrong signal by encouraging the idea to 'extract' child victims of the tsunami from their countries of origin," Salvatore Parata from the Terre des Hommes Brussels office told IPS. "To protect children from abduction risks, the worst action to undertake is precisely to extract them from their country."
The group with offices in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland and Syria says the safety of children is being threatened also by the increasing number of people in Western countries who want to adopt children orphaned by the disaster.
Terre des Hommes is particularly concerned that European governments will be influenced by adoptive parents.
"The experience of the recent past has shown that certain European governments -- for example France and Italy -- are more concerned about the interests of the parents who have undertaken procedures to adopt rather than the ones of the orphans," Parata said.
"The pressure of the prospective adoptive parents is quite enormous because they think that it is much easier now to adopt children from the affected areas in Asia or countries in difficulty," he added.
As a consequence, he said, these governments are placing strong pressure on developing countries to give children for adoption, even if a suitable solution could be found within the country, such as national adoption.
Terre des Hommes says the EU and its member governments should take concrete measures to prevent trafficking such as registering children that might be orphans or just separated from their parents, and setting up local rehabilitation structures. "In any case, we strongly ask the EU to undertake regular consultation with NGO (non-governmental organizations) and specialized humanitarian agencies that have been working in those countries for years and have the relevant expertise and specific know-how to shape the right EU answers to the disaster," Parata said.
Other children's groups say that while one of the compelling images of this disaster is the houses that were swept away, community and social structures that protect children have gone as well.
"Structures like families, schools, teachers, civil leaders, police, and legal authorities act as a protective web," said Ian Wishart, national executive director of Plan Australia. "Now they are thrown into disarray, leaving many children vulnerable."
Plan Australia and related agencies like Child Wise are trying to stay one step ahead of child traffickers but "it is like the war on terrorism," Wishart said. "They seek out the weak spots. Child centerd agencies have to practice counter-child trafficking."
Plan Australia is urging the EU to make protection of children "first priority" in its interventions.
"This means that the EU should build appropriate mechanisms addressing children in its response, including education, family reunification measures, trauma and psycho-social counselling, programs to protect children from illegal adoption or trafficking," Plan Australia's funding and advocacy advisor in Brussels Deepali Sood told IPS.
"At the moment although the EU has played a leading role in its response and has shown a serious commitment, a coherent strategy to address vulnerable children is lacking," Sood added.
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