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AFRICA: A Continent of Orphans

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Dec 13 2006 (IPS) - War, AIDS, malaria, cholera and famine have gradually turned Africa into a continent full of orphaned children and teenagers.

According to the latest statistics released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), there are 48.3 million orphans south of the Sahara desert, one-quarter of whom have lost their parents to AIDS.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of orphans in Africa rose from 30.9 million to 41.5 million, and those orphaned by AIDS increased from 330,000 to seven million.

Projections by the two U.N. agencies suggest that by 2010, there will be 53.1 million children under 18 bereft of their parents, 15.7 million of whom will have had parents who died of AIDS, caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

In response to these stark figures, Portuguese authorities have indicated that their country maintains strong historic links with Africa, and Interior Minister Antonio Santos da Costa has called on the Portuguese Refugee Council (CPR) to create a reception centre exclusively for African children arriving in Portugal unaccompanied by an adult.

The minister’s challenge was immediately taken up by CPR’s chairwoman, Maria Teresa Tito de Morais, in spite of the fact that because of a lack of funds, “few unaccompanied children have arrived in Portugal” so far, as she explained to IPS.

The spine-chilling statistics on African orphans estimate that there are 170,000 orphaned children in Mauritania, 710,000 in Mali, 800,000 in Niger, 600,000 in Chad, 1.7 million in Sudan, 280,000 in Eritrea, 48,000 in Djibouti, 4.8 million in Ethiopia, 630,000 in Somalia, 560,000 in Senegal, 710,000 in Burkina Faso, 370,000 in Benin, 64,000 in The Gambia, 100,000 in Guinea-Bissau and 370,000 in Guinea.

Nigeria has 8.6 million orphans, Ivory Coast 1.4 million, Liberia 250,000, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic 340,000 each, Ghana and Cameroon one million each, Equatorial Guinea 29,000, Gabon 65,000, the Republic of the Congo 270,000, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) 4.2 million, Rwanda 820,000 and Burundi 600,000.

Uganda and Kenya are home to 2.3 million orphans each, Tanzania to 2.4 million, Angola and Zambia 1.2 million each, the Comoros 33,000, Malawi 950,000, Namibia 140,000, Botwsana 150,000, Zimbabwe 1.4 million, Mozambique 1.5 million, Madagascar 900,000, Lesotho 150,000, and Swaziland and South Africa 2.5 million each.

The reception centre to be established in northern Portugal will “take in orphan children who are still in foreign countries, even their home countries, waiting for fate to give direction to their lives. This will be a means of preventing them from becoming child soldiers, for instance,” said Tito de Morais.

To date, despite its special relationship with several African countries that were former Portuguese colonies, “Portugal has not had a strong tradition of receiving unaccompanied children,” she said. “In 2006 we have only taken in 10, but since the government expressed an openness to welcome African orphans, we immediately went to work so that in two years time, or two and a half, the reception centre should be ready,” she added.

In the initial stage “we will be able to receive 40 children, divided into four groups: newborns to three-year-olds, and ages four to six, seven to 10, and 10 to 12,” she described.

Meanwhile, “at our current refugee centre we have set aside room especially for children, and we are already in communication with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about identifying children in need of international protection, who may arrive before the new centre is ready,” she added.

On another front, “we will contact several mayors in the north of the country in January, because the cooperation and commitment of the municipalities is essential, as securing the land for building the centre is the first step toward making this cooperation possible,” said Tito de Morais.

During the Balkan wars in the early 1990s, which were contemporary with the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, Portugal took in orphans, particularly from Bosnia. At that time, a survey was carried out among couples potentially interested in adopting children.

The poll found that the vast majority of respondents would prefer to adopt an African child from a former Portuguese colony, rather than one from the former Yugoslavia. The reasons given were the shared historical, linguistic and cultural identity with Angolans and Mozambicans.

This result, a contrast with majority attitudes in the rest of Europe, according to Tito de Morais shows that “Portuguese people have a special sensitivity for welcoming vulnerable children, whatever their race or nationality, and in our experience, African children have never been excluded.”

Portugal’s relationship with Africa, while often traumatic, has been a fundamental factor in the last six centuries of its history.

Portugal, a pioneer in colonialism in Africa, founded its first colony there in 1415, and was virtually the last European power to leave the continent, in 1975. To this day, the cloud of what some historians and analysts call “the debt of colonialism” continues to hang over Portugal as a kind of collective “post-imperial guilt complex.”

Brazilian writer Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) took a more benevolent attitude towards Portugal’s colonial history in his book, whose title translates as “The World Created by the Portuguese” (1940), in which he concluded that Portugal’s openness towards Africa, Brazil and its former colonies in Asia was due to the multicultural and multirracial nature of Portuguese society over many centuries.

As a result, Portugal today “is the most diverse country in Europe, and travelling in its former African colonies one finds that there are white Africans, and in this country, that there are black Portuguese,” Silvio Manuel de Paula, an Angolan-born pilot who holds dual Portuguese and Angolan nationality, told IPS.

“That alone suffices to explain Portuguese openness to welcoming and adopting African orphans,” de Paula said.

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