Suspected covert adoption center uncovered

Date: 2001-09-14

Written by Bill Bainbridge and Vong Sokheng

Cambodia's troubled adoption 'industry' is again in the spotlight after a raid on a clinic uncovered what NGO's suspect is a baby trafficking center. Bill Bainbridge and Vong Sokheng investigate.

Worldwide, adoption programs have been blighted with claims of baby trafficking: Romania put a halt to international adoption in June this year and Vietnam jailed the members of a trafficking ring in January, 2000.

Six months after a nine month moratorium on international adoptions from Cambodia ended, evidence has emerged of a well-organized ring that buys babies from impoverished mothers to supply orphanages with 'adoptable' children. The arrest and release of four people suspected of baby trafficking has fueled fears that the international adoption 'business' is back in full swing.

The case came to light after an NGO working with HIV positive women noticed that two toddlers belonging to a mother of three involved in their program had disappeared. A case worker said that it was not the first time the organization had encountered sick mothers selling their babies.

"I didn't want to see it happen again so I suggested to the mother that we could help find her children," the case worker said.

The children's mother confessed she had sold her children for $150 and then, regretting it, had demanded the children be returned. She was told that she could have back her HIV positive son if she paid $45 for the test. She then led workers from Licadho to the Tuol Kork brothel that had purchased the children.

The brothel owner directed them to a middleman, 31-year-old Kha On, alias Chan Sareurn, who had paid an undisclosed amount for the two toddlers. However, the children had already been taken to another location that On refused to reveal.

Licadho enlisted the Tuol Kork police in an attempt to pressure On into divulging the location of the children. When they arrived they discovered an extensive operation housed in two Tuol Kork properties linked to the Asian Orphans' Association (AOA).

Twelve mostly female 'orphans' were divided between the two houses; some were in cribs while others were found on the mezzanine floor.

The case has caused alarm among NGOs and some prospective parents alike.

The Post has spoken to a number of prospective and recent adopting parents, all of whom indicated that the paying of large bribes was obligatory. They quoted figures for adoptions arranged independently of between $3,500 and $7,000 in fees paid both to people in the government and 'donations' in cash or equipment to the orphanages.

They said that for an additional fee, the ministries involved had indicated they would be willing to overlook vital documents, including police reports.

The parents, who were arranging their own adoptions locally and wished to remain anonymous, expressed frustration and anxiety over the process in which they could not be certain of receiving a genuinely abandoned baby.

On said in an interview with police and human rights workers that babies are exchanged for as little as 50,000 riels. If the infant is HIV free then they are sent to America.

On told the interviewers that it was the center's policy not to reveal the whereabouts of the orphanage to parents to prevent them from trying to get their child back.

"The center always encounters problems with the parents of the babies" he said.

"They think 'it was my child who is being sent to American people and I received only a little amount of money while the center receives a huge amount [and that is] not fair'."

Big money involved

Several new facilitators, who help prospective parents from overseas find a child, have entered the Cambodian market this year and the number of children being adopted has sky-rocketed. lists Cambodian adoption programs, eight of which began operating this year. By international standards Cambodia is one of the cheapest places - if not the cheapest - to adopt a child in the world. However, the costs are still substantial.

US-based agencies charge between $12,000 and $18,000 to arrange adoptions. Around $9,000 is designated as 'in-country fees', which go to the orphanages and bureaucrats. Cambodia-US adoption fee turnover is currently worth $10 million a year.

In 1999, the last full year for foreign adoptions, the US embassy processed 240 visas for children adopted by US citizens. An embassy spokesman told the Post that on average 96 visas a month had been issued since March 14, bringing the total to 576. The French Embassy did not respond to several inquiries for figures.

A Cambodian foreign affairs official told the Post that that Cambodian orphans and children had also been adopted by British, Italians and Germans.

International adoptions resumed after Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree March 14 designed to tighten the system, which has long been plagued by allegations of bribery and baby buying.

The most significant change in the sub-decree was the implementation of a three month 'cooling off' period to allow women to reclaim children 'sold' to orphanages.


For prospective parents as well, adopting children in Cambodia is complicated. They must negotiate a complex procedure to receive approval from the Ministries of Social Affairs (MOSALVY), Foreign Affairs and the Council of Ministers.

Article 13 of the adoption sub-decree says that persons "may make charitable contributions voluntarily to [MOSALVY] for the sake of the orphaned babies or children", although it makes no reference to specific amounts.

After the police raid, the ministries involved clammed up. Officials at MOSALVY said that Minister Ith Samheng had issued a directive the day after the raid prohibiting public officials from speaking to the press on the matter. The Post understands that a similar directive was issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

MOSALVY did not honor a commitment to respond to the Post's questions in writing by September 11.

One of the 12 children taken into care after the raid on AOA was hospitalized suffering from malnutrition. Licadho investigators also found evidence that the children were not provided with health care.

The oldest of the children, nine-year-old Bopha (not her real name), told Licadho that she was taken in six months ago to act as a carer to feed and change the younger babies.

"I was looking after babies every day," she said, adding that every four to five days "babies come through, get blood tests and go out again".

However, AOA's director, Puth Serey, denied that other babies were brought in for blood tests. He said that the two houses were a legally registered medical clinic and had no authority to conduct blood tests.

"That clinic is not supposed to conduct any other blood tests, only to make the treatment for my children," he said.

Bopha also told investigators that children were never taken to hospital but were treated by a nurse at the 'clinic'. She said she had seen one infant become ill and die on the premises.


AOA's lawyer, Chhit Boravuth, told the Post that the raid was a complete misunderstanding. He said that the infants were staying temporarily at the property while renovations were carried out at the AOA center outside Phnom Penh.

"We were careless about one thing: we forgot to make an official document on the transfer of the babies. That created the confusion that led to police suspecting child trafficking" he said.

Licadho investigators have discovered two more women who claim to have lost their children to AOA after being approached by agents. Both of their children were found among the 12 seized infants.

One, a waitress, was approached by a couple who live in the same street as the 'clinic' where the orphans were found two days after giving birth. The couple offered $70 for her baby and told her that "an organization will look after your baby". When she tried to get her child back, she was told she would have to pay $210.

"I cried every day and I didn't know where to complain," she told the human rights workers.

The couple refused to divulge the child's location and instead gave her a photograph of the baby. When the news of the raid was reported she immediately went to Licadho.

After she accurately described her baby's birth marks, Licadho investigators concluded that she was mother to one of the 12 seized children.

Ny Ka, 31, a carer at the houses, told police that the women were paid $60 per baby per month to look after the infants.

"If their health is OK then they'll go to the US for new mothers," she told the police during the raid.

However, AOA's Boravuth said that was simply not true.

"She is wrong to say this. AOA does not pay a salary to health workers; they are volunteers and AOA is a humanitarian agency."

He also disputed the assertion that any children had been bought.

"At the time the mother came we hesitated because we were afraid it may look like trafficking, but when she begged us we decided to take care of her babies," he said.

Serey says the AOA has never given money for children and maintains the 12 babies were genuinely abandoned.

"They were abandoned and the local authority assigned them to the orphanage so we had no choice but to take them. [The local authority] has papers that prove that this child was abandoned or that the family has passed away."

Release surprises

To the surprise of human rights groups the four alleged perpetrators were released the day after their arrest. Police received letters signed by the district governor of Dangko, Kong Saran, and the commune chief of Samroeng Krom, Tuoch Pin, authorizing AOA to take custody of the children.

AOA representative Yu Sakon met Licadho field officers the following day and offered to exchange the two children for the 12 taken into Licadho's custody and placed with an international NGO. Licadho refused to link the cases and reunited the woman with her children and pressed for an investigation.

Puth Serey, a former tourism official, "import/exporter" and President of AOA, denied that he was an adoption facilitator, saying he had "no right" to facilitate adoptions.

His lawyer, Boravuth, said: "We don't think about seeking adoptive parents overseas, because we are only a humanitarian organization".

While Boravuth conceded that adoptive parents sometimes adopt at AOA, which has been operating since 1999, it was only on an ad hoc and private basis.

Both men said that the orphanage relies on private donations for its funding but generally received a small amount in gifts from adoptive parents.

"Some adoptive families give small funds, sometimes some medication, maybe $100 or $200," Serey said.

Although Serey says he does not work with any US-based international adoption agencies, he is listed as an "adoption facilitator" for at least three on the website. The three are: Children's House International, Ventures for Children, and Angel's Haven Outreach. Serey's "adoption referral policy" was published on email discussion lists in July by the staff of Angel's Haven.

Angel's Haven emails clients recommending they choose a boy, because there is a shortage of girls. They also assure their customers that each child receives examinations from a Western-trained doctor.

None of the US-based organizations responded to the Post's emails requesting information on their relationship with AOA.

Email postings to an adoption group list, however, indicated that Serey had been used as a facilitator by numerous adoptive parents, including one of a three and a-half month old baby approved only days ago.

Serey denied all knowledge of this or any other cases, as well as any references to his name on websites and email lists.

"I don't know who published my name. I did not authorize it and I have no idea who would do a very bad thing like this," he said.

Laws lacking

If nothing else, the case has shown a lack of any effective law regulating the at times murky business of adoptions in Cambodia. There are no laws either to regulate adoptions or to combat baby trafficking - the law provides only for trafficking for the purposes of sex. However, legal experts said that other articles such as illegal confinement, kidnapping, corruption and forgery could potentially be applied in baby trafficking cases.

Minister for Women's and Veteran's Affairs Mu Sochua said that a law on adoption was necessary to address irregularities in the system. The law should also outlaw any exchange of cash for children.

"Parents should not lose their guardianship of children. There should never be any money involved and parents should remain the legal guardians," she said.

"If it's a pure orphanage then you don't give money to the supposed parents. Children should not be in there if they have parents. It is not a halfway house or a shelter."

Kha On, alias Chan Sareurn, being held by police during the raid.

Rescued or kidnapped? - Human rights workers remove "orphans" from one of two Tuol Kork houses on September 3.

Three infants as police found them on the floor of a Tuol Kork house September 3.


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