Aid workers smuggle kids

Date: 
2004-08-27

Freetown - Three employees of a Sierra Leone child welfare organization are to face trial next week on charges they smuggled 31 children to the United States for adoption, officials said on Friday.

Social Welfare Minister Shirley Gbujama said three local employees of the Help a Needy Child International organisation (Hanci) are alleged to have smuggled the children out of Sierra Leone through Guinea or Ghana, where they were handed to agents from a US-based adoption agency.

Hanci is based in the northern town of Makeni, where Sierra Leone's devastating decade of civl war has produced the highest proportion of street children and orphans in the west African state.

The children were adopted through Maine Adoption Placement Services (Maps), based in the northeastern US state of Maine, according to the arrest warrant for the three men.

Local media reported that Hanci was paid roughly US$3 000 for each of the children.

Maps officials were able to process documents and visas there without any reference to adoption procedures in Sierra Leone, which require that families spend six months with their potential adopted child before they can take them home.

Sierra Leone assistant police commissioner Chris Charley said the national police had been contacted via the US embassy by Interpol for help in the case, which dates back as far as 1998.

"As soon as we were informed, we immediately took over responsibility of the children's home and we are now constantly monitoring its operations," Gbujama said.

Temporary charges have been filed against two of the three men. John Gbla, a former Hanci employee who started his own child-services organisation, faces five counts of child stealing for allegedly taking children for adoption without their parents' consent.

The three are being held in custody without bail ahead of their trial on August 30.

The United Nations children's agency Unicef says child trafficking occurs in 8% of African nations. Child welfare activists say that while no numbers are accurate, it is estimated that some 200 000 children are trafficked around the world's poorest continent.

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