After a year of despair, Haiti orphans get a fresh start in France

More than 100 Haitian orphans arrived in France yesterday to spend Christmas with their new families, ending nearly a year of intense diplomacy.

The children, from 18 months to two years old, flew into Paris after the French government chartered an aircraft to deliver them to their new homes just in time for Christmas.

Delphine Rivière, an English teacher from Lyon, held sleeping 20-month-old Erika and said: "I haven't even heard her speak yet. This is a moment of pure joy." Like other parents, Ms Rivière and her husband had all but completed the adoption procedures for Erika before an earthquake devastated Haiti last January. All the adoption documents, including Erika's birth certificate, were lost after the destruction of government buildings.

Her departure for France – and that of 300 other small children – was held up by the lack of paperwork, the post-earthquake confusion and – allegedly – the doubts and suspicions of the former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. Mr Kouchner – who is one of the founders of the relief organisation Médécins sans Frontières, is said to have feared that France could be accused of child-napping, like the US missionaries who tried unsuccessfully to take 33 children out of Haiti earlier this year.

Since he left the foreign ministry last month his successor, Michèle Alliot-Marie, has cut through red tape to reach an agreement about the orphans with the authorities in Port-au-Prince.

The two governments signed an agreement last week that the children could leave Haiti without completion of all the normal exit papers or passports and visas. The French foreign ministry chartered the first flight to bring in 114 children yesterday.

Another 90 are expected to arrive on a second flight tomorrow. The cost to the French taxpayer is €550,000 (£468,000). There are 37 children whose cases are still being studied.

Others have already been collected by wealthier parents, who flew to Haiti on scheduled flights.

Ms Alliot-Marie, who was at Charles de Gaulle airport to greet the children and the 105 parents who had travelled to collect them, said: "These children are arriving with no legal doubts about their status whatsoever."

Valérie Damilleville, welcoming her new son Jean, aged 19 months, said: "Everything is ready for him. I've got warm clothes, a teddy bear, woolly socks, little shoes, little overalls, games, biscuits, a milk bottle..."

A team of 10 paediatricians was waiting at the airport to examine the children and check for signs of the cholera which has already cost 2,500 lives in Haiti in recent weeks. All the children came from camps and orphanages where no cases of cholera had been reported. Emmanuelle Guerry, of the parents' pressure group SOS Haiti Enfants, said that although it was fitting that the children had reached their new homes in time for the Christmas festivities, the problem should have been resolved much sooner. Canada and the United States had come to similar agreements with Haiti last April.

"Bernard Kouchner had no respect for the [adoptive] families," she said. "He suspected we were child stealers but all the adoption procedures were under way before the earthquake."