Europe, France, Human Rights

Réunion Island: France’s Stolen Children

Something unexpected happened between 1963 and 1982, 2150 children were taken from Réunion Island, a French region in the Indian Ocean. They were brought to France, promising food, education, health and general cares… but then more than 90% vanished from the map.

Around 1960, the French government decided to launch a social program to repopulate some deserted areas of rural postwar France. Michel Debré, a mainland politician, was the man behind this idea. His intentions, at least on paper, were to relieve the overcrowded orphanages from different French islands and to bring young people to repopulate the French countryside areas.

People of Réunion were mostly slave descendants, they were brought there by French colonizers to work on sugar plantations, by the time, the island was almost deserted. Debré promised these people that their kids were going to be well fed and dressed, that they were going to receive the education their parents never even dreamed of, he said they were going to take them away to achieve a better future, but that never happened.

Testimonies of Réunion parents are terrifying. Some agreed to let the French government take their kids since they had promised to take them back once a year to visit. Others refused completely but testified how red trucks from the government would roam the streets after local schools closed, to pick up children and then force their parents to sign the permission papers.
Over 20 years, the French government took approximately 2,150 kids away from their homes, and I say approximately because there are believed to be more since many records of these soft kidnappings got lost in time.

Why are we Talking about France’s Stolen Children now?

Because of Jean-Jacques Martial, a 58-year-old man who wrote the book “Une Enfance Volée” (a Stolen Childhood) and tried to sue the French government for forcingly taking him away from his family on Réunion.

That happened in 2002, Martial was demanding an explanation and €1 Million. After Jean-Jacques wrote his book and started the lawsuit, many other men and women raised their voice saying they had been stolen from their families that way, too. The French government had to give an official response to that matter.

They didn’t deny it, they recognized they had done wrong and that they did not have all the answers at the moment, but that they will fully collaborate with the victims and put in all their efforts to clarify the situation.

By 2008, the government agreed to pay Martial a ticket back to Réunion to search for his family, but he couldn’t find it and surrendered to this new emotional breakdown. But more names were coming out, and with them, the truth about what had happened to those kids.

Stolen Children from Réunion Island: Forced labor, Poor Education and not Enough food

Jean-Thierry Cheyroux and Maryse Ferragut, also from Réunion, talked about the horrors they had to live when they touched French ground. They were promised many things, even silly stuff like not going to school anymore or free candy… but the truth was far from the happiness the government had promised.

Cheyroux comments that he doesn’t remember his mother’s face, but he does remember the plane he was put in. He couldn’t stop crying the whole trip. Maryse doesn’t have such a different story, she was forced to work on plantations, to clean houses, and she would scarcely receive a basic education. Whenever she misbehaved, she would be locked in a tiny room for a week to learn her lesson.

They were both taken back to the island as part of a French government program to formally apologize for this situation and to try to give them back their identity, but neither of them could remember something from Réunion, they have old and damaged pictures and no clue of where their families might be.

They also have an immense feeling of abandonment and memories that have walked their path for almost 60 years. Traumatic reminiscences of adoptive unloving families and experiences that a child should never go through, chasing them even after returning to Réunion. Some people did find a family member back there, some others didn’t even find the documents their parents had supposedly signed.

According to other stolen children, many of them didn’t have the strength to face those conditions alone, so they killed themselves. Most of them were adopted or escaped the facilities, so they remain lost forever.

Stolen Children: History Repeats Itself

Sadly, France is not the only country that has done such things. The Australian government also apologized publicly in 2008 for removing almost 100,000 aboriginal children out of the country over 70 years. And so did England, Indonesia, and many others.

Apologies are accepted, but what are these governments doing to prevent outrageous situations like these? Can the victims actually move on with their lives and fully let go of their history and identity? Perhaps not.

About Daniela D. Franco

Daniela is a Social Psychologist from Venezuela, she is interested in the changes technology and the development of social networks generate into human interactions, and is currently studying Digital Marketing. She enjoys reading, writing and biking while David Bowie is playing in her iPod.

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