The Third-World Baby Racket

Date: 1987-04-13

Radhakrishna Rao

FROM LEBANON to Malaysia, trading in babies has become a booming business. Every day, in various parts of Asia, thousands of infants are bought and sold with a professional expertise more usually associated with a commodity market or a stock exchange.

Depending on the mood of the buyers and the prevailing economic conditions, the price of babies offered for sale fluctuates wildly. But the eagerness of childless couples in North America and Europe to have a family, added to the shortage of babies available for adoption in those countries, means that the market for Third World children is brisk.

In some parts of the world, the baby trade is quite blatant. Newspapers in Beirut have started carrying advertisements offering children for sale. One recent example, in the daily Al-Nahar, read: "For sale - eight children. I, Ahmed Badr Ta Washeh from Kibbeh, offer my eight under-age children for the price of getting them out of Lebanon and giving them the basic necessities of life."

This apparently brought responses from as far away as Cairo and Dubai. It is not an isolated case, and is just one manifestation of the social and economic tensions in strife-torn Lebanon.

Children are sold farther East, too. Recently, police in Sri Lanka busted a gang involved in baby-trading and arrested four people in the southern town of Galle. They consisted of a matron, a broker and two accomplices, who were buying babies from mothers who were tempted by monetary gain or desirous of avoiding the shame of an illegitimate child.

The broker confessed that he scouted around villages, estate areas and maternity wards for pregnant women. Mothers-to-be who agreed to sell their babies were paid some money in advance, with the balance due when they handed the babies over after birth. The matron took care of these infants in safe houses in Colombo. Once legal formalities were completed, foreign foster parents who had gone to Sri Lanka especially - the overwhelming majority from the United States, Sweden and West Germany - took the babies away with them.

In 1986, at least 200 babies were also flown out of Sri Lanka by foreign agencies working hand in glove with local brokers, according to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Social Welfare. The ministry alleges that over the past few months there have been efforts to send pregnant women abroad for their delivery to evade a government clampdown.

During the 1970s, more than 10,000 Sri Lankan babies are believed to have been sent abroad. Of those, about 7,000 reportedly went to Sweden. Childless couples in the West are willing to pay as much as $4,000 a child to the Sri Lankan brokers. Of this money, the natural mother may receive as little as $35.

Here in India, hundreds of unwanted babies also make their way to new homes in the United States or Western Europe. Every day, at least half a dozen newborn children from the slums of Calcutta or the maternity homes of New Delhi are allocated to foster parents abroad. A couple of years ago, there was an outcry in India over the way that an adoption agency based in Atlanta, Ga., had involved itself in this baby-smuggling scheme.

In Malaysia, baby trading has become a highly sophisticated and at times utterly crooked racket. Well-organized syndicates in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and other towns smuggle babies in from neighboring Thailand. Most of these children are born to Thai parents or Kampuchean refugees, who are too poor to bring them up themselves. At times, these syndicates also sell illegitimate children.

But there have been instances of members of these syndicates cheating some unwary foreign couples by collecting the agreed fee in advance and then disappearing without producing a child. The cheated couples usually do not dare report the matter to the police, as they know this could land them in trouble themselves.

However, the police in Malaysia have recorded some successes in combating the trade. Last year, they stumbled across an operation at Pandamaran, about 30 miles from Kuala Lumpur. Two women - a midwife and her accomplice - were taken into custody. At their trial, they confessed to having sold a hundred babies to childless couples. The police were ultimately able to recover more than half of these.

Under Malaysian law, people caught selling babies can be imprisoned for a period of five years, made to pay a large fine, or both. But police say that it is often difficult to prosecute the operators, since the couples who have bought children from them refuse to give evidence for fear that they will subsequently have to give up their babies.


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