This is an editorial by Andrew Cates, CEO of SOS Children UK.
Even though the children are in our care, I have no special insight into the immediate motivation or circumstances which led to ten Americans being arrested on the border, for attempting to remove children illegally into the Dominican Republic. The courts can decide that although no doubt politics will play more role than it should. Although some circumstantial evidence looks bad, it is possible that these Americans simply did not realise that removing children from a country was controlled by its laws and that they had a naive view of the needs and situation of the children they were taking. Perhaps they really were trying to take them to a better life.
So, assuming good faith and only naivity on the part of these individuals, I want to ask the question how on earth individuals such as these might end up with the impression that removing young children and babies from their families in a moment of crisis and putting them in a camp in another country was an appropriate course of action. Who can we blame for this kind of behaviour? I blame the media. When this earthquake occurred there were estimates of 20-250,000 dead but some (not all) mainstream media stubbornly ran stories of a million orphaned children. Exactly the same myth happened after the Asian tsunami. You can easily find sources giving details on the numbers of orphaned children from other disasters and it is a work of minutes, as we said at the time to realise that a million children orphaned by an earthquake was an absurd claim. Perhaps 10,000 but the difference between ten thousand and a million is a gulf. We should know, we have 78000 children in our care around the world. If 10,000 children were orphaned 9,000 would have extended families to take them in with a little support and 1,000 could have family based care in a few Children's Villages or similar. But a million... our entire strategic target for the whole world for 2016 is to give a million children a family life and overnight in one country would just not be doable.
The reason why giving such wrong numbers was a real issue was in the nature of response. A headline of a million orphans may help to drive people to make a credit card donation to the DEC, which coordinates the UK's short term response. A headline of a million children needing immediate help would have been true but perhaps does not work as well because of donor fatigue on "more children in need". Immediate donors people may not give a second thought to the figure and just be impressed into response by the use of the "orphan" figure, but many thoughtful people instinctively react to children alone with a longer term response than a coin in a bucket. These people want to take a child home and care for them for life, or sponsor a child or commit through to independence. Caring for a million new orphans in a country the size of Haiti would be impossible, it would take the problem to the level of orphans in Malawi or similar. People who might have understood these children could have a loving family live in Haiti were duped by misinformation into jumping into mini buses and trying to round up the children. Shockingly naive, but actually a little understandable given the news.
So at both levels the media have some questions to answer; duping more people into shorter term response devalues the needs of genuinely orphaned children and misleading people who want to help rebuild lives with the false figures leads to people trying inappropriate round ups and evacuations. For both those, media elements are doing a disservice to the children of Haiti. So next earthquake can we give a vaguely correct figure for the number of orphans and draw a clear line around longer term commitments to orphans such as sponsorships versus short term emergency relief for children who need shelter whilst their parents puts their house back up? Some chance...