Orphanages in 'children for sale' racket

Date: 2007-03-10

Thomas Bell

Dishonest agents and orphanages in Nepal are running a multi-million-pound international adoption racket, frequently sending children abroad without their birth parents' consent.

An investigation by The Daily Telegraph has uncovered the extent of the malpractice as Kathmandu prepares to host an international adoption conference this weekend, aimed at attracting foreign adoptive parents and lobbying for deregulation.

Posing as a British couple seeking to adopt, reporters found one agent who demanded cash advances in an attempt to, in effect, sell us a Nepali baby.

One victim of the trade is Padam Bahadur Shahi, 31, a forest guard from the remote Himalayan region of Humla. He had two children to support on a salary of £23 a month when his eldest son, Kobi Raj Shahi, then aged three, fell ill two years ago.

A friend told him that a children's home in Kathmandu would help him care for the child. "They promised education and well-being," he said. "There was no agreement about adoption."

In January he learnt that the boy, now five, was adopted by a Spanish couple on June 2 last year. The man who owned the home had obtained official papers declaring Kobi Raj an orphan.

The Telegraph spoke to a local lawyer, a child rights activist, a government official and staff at a well-known international children's organisation.

None wanted to be identified, citing the power and influence of the adoption lobby, but they told the same story of corruption.

More than 300 children are adopted every year and 338 were adopted in the first six months of the current financial year, many legitimately and successfully. According to the government, 11 have gone to Britain since 2000.

The only official fee is about £150 but sources said that some couples pay at least £10,000 to middlemen and officials.

"Maybe 75 per cent of [the children] have parents, but [the orphanage owners] do like in the case of Padam Bahadur," said a government child care official. Like Padam Bahadur, many of the affected families come from the Humla district with little access to information or support.

Every day newspaper advertisements appear seeking information on "lost" children. They give little information that could help identify the child, but if no one comes forward within 56 days the child can be declared an orphan.

The official said the corrupt orphanages and their owners are well known.

"There's a problem of political pressure," he said. "If we publish their names in the newspaper maybe we can't stay here."

Staff at the international children's organisation said that an establishment was shut down two years ago that was supplying "orphans" on demand to orphanages that had contacts with foreign couples. Those involved in the investigation received threats.

Senior government officials have visited countries, including Spain, where many Nepali children go.

The trips were supposedly to "monitor parents" but are widely suspected in Nepal to be sweeteners.

The Telegraph visited one of the organisers of this weekend's conference. They directed us to the organisation's secretary, who is an orphanage owner and sits on several children's committees.

Over five meetings, he suggested that we pay him £750 in legal fees and donate £2,500 to his orphanage. We gave him a cheque for £400 and immediately stopped it but the process began to accelerate after he received it.

He offered to "guarantee" that our adoption application would be successful. His "representatives" on the committees handling applications would ensure ours proceeded quickly.

Yet, according to Nepali regulations, the child he encouraged us to adopt is ineligible because he has two living parents who are not destitute.

The agent encouraged us to negotiate a financial settlement with the parents which would also be channelled through him.

According to the agent officials at the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare are scrambling to approve 25 adoption applications a day so that "parents can attend the conferwence, pick up their kids and go home".

At the ministry, Vinod Kumar Adhikary, a senior official who sits on a committee that handles adoption cases, insisted: "We are not selling our children". He denied that there was widespread malpractice. "We are extremely strict so there should not be a single case in 10,000," he said.

Meanwhile, Padam Bahadur Shahi has been told that he has no chance of getting his son back. "I feel hopeless," he said. "But I will sit in this (government) offfice every day until something happens.


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