Babies for sale: no warranty
Uncertain past, clouded future ... an orphan at Phnom Penh's Missionaries of Charity Hospice. Photo: Andy Eames
In Cambodia, corruption and lax regulations mean it's easy to get a child quickly. The problem is, many of them aren't abandoned - they're sold. Mark Baker investigates.
Chhay Toro was nine months old when he first arrived at this place - pale, emaciated and fighting for his life with a heart condition. Two smudged red thumbprints on a creased, handwritten page witness the wretched moment when his parents signed away their only son.
Destitute and unable to feed or care for their baby, Chhay Rithy, a disabled war veteran, and his wife, Eng Srei Nu, made the decision in which they had no choice: they gave him away to the Phnom Penh Nutrition Centre, a state-run orphanage in the Cambodian capital.
Now Chhay Toro plays in a dormitory with four other little boys, two of whom are HIV-positive. In a nearby corridor, the skeletal figures of several severely handicapped infants lie on the bare linoleum as nursing aides struggle to spoon-feed them.
Chhay Toro is lucky. He is healthy, handsome and chosen. Soon he will fly to Canada to begin a new life, one of thousands of children who in the past decade have helped to turn Cambodia into one of the biggest source countries for international adoptions.
This should be the perfect marriage between East and West - children cast aside by the random fate of being born into one of the world's poorest societies, finding love and hope among the legions of childless couples in rich countries.
But for most of these children the veneer of happy endings disguises the ugly reality of a cruel trade in human misery - a trade in which many children are stolen or bought for a few dollars and where venal foreign intermediaries and corrupt local officials are sharing multimillion-dollar profits.
Human rights agencies and child protection activists nominate Cambodia, along with Romania and Guatemala, as one of the world's most notorious adoption "hot spots" - countries with lax regulations and rampant corruption where children of dubious status can be fast-tracked for international adoption.
While most international adoptions from countries that are signatories to the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption can take two or more years, adoptions from Cambodia - which is not a party to the convention and does not even have a formal adoption law - can be pushed through in as little as three or four months.
Dale Edmonds, a New Zealander living in Singapore who has adopted three Cambodian children, estimates that 90 per cent of international adoptions from Cambodia are what she describes as "fraudulent" - the children presented as adopted or abandoned have, in fact, been traded or stolen from their natural parents.
"Most of them have been bought or placed for money, and many of them are children who, with support, could have stayed with their families," says Edmonds, two of whose children were offered as orphans but were later found to have been sold by their natural parents.
Jason Barber, a consultant with the respected Cambodian human rights group Licadho, says:
"There is a pattern of recruiters going around the communities looking for poor women who are pregnant or with young children and either offering them money outright or cheating them by saying they have centres where they will care for the children temporarily."
Two years ago pressure by Licadho triggered police raids on two Phnom Penh orphanages run by agents supplying children for adoption to the US. Seven people were charged with human trafficking. While none of them has yet been prosecuted, the scandal triggered a US moratorium on new adoptions from Cambodia. France and several other European countries followed suit. [AOA and KAOA]
But many of those concerned by the extent of corruption involved in Cambodian adoptions believe the US and France - the two principal destinations for adopted Cambodian children before the current bans - share much of the blame.
In 1997 US authorities granted 66 visas for Cambodian adoptions. By the time the moratorium was imposed in December 2001 more than 100 visas a month were being issued. Hundreds more children were being adopted by French couples every year.
"I believe such a big demand for children from Western countries is not solving a problem of abandonment, but creating it," says the head of one Phnom Penh non-governmental agency involved in legitimate adoptions. "Some Westerners come here with bags of money, desperate to adopt children at any cost and even prepared to turn a blind eye to where those children came from."
Barber says American couples have been paying between $US10,000 ($13,500) and $US40,000 to fast-track Cambodian adoptions - part of the money spent on bribes to push the paperwork through the bureaucracy, but the bulk of it pocketed by adoption agents, several of whom run their own orphanages.
One of the most famous of the so-called "facilitators" is American Lauryn Galindo, a former Hawaiian hula dancer who has made a multimillion-dollar fortune arranging adoptions for Americans in Cambodia. Her clients include actress Angelina Jolie, whose son Maddox was plucked from a rural orphanage and delivered to a movie set in Africa where Jolie was working.
Despite the US moratorium and the tightening of controls by several European governments, hundreds of children are continuing to be processed for adoption to Europe and North America. "All the orphanages and all the facilitators are still in business," says Barber.
A senior official with another Phnom Penh-based agency which assists Cambodian orphans says fresh adoptions to the US are still being quietly processed - including three children who were flown out last week, one with a couple in their late 50s.
Australia does not permit direct adoptions from Cambodia because of the country's failure to ratify the Hague convention and to act against traffickers. But a number of Australian couples have adopted Cambodian children after living in Cambodia or third countries such as Singapore, which do permit direct adoptions.
While none of the couples contacted by the Herald would agree to be interviewed for this article, the Australian parents of at least two Cambodian children adopted as orphans have since discovered that their natural parents are still alive and that their identity papers had been forged. In one case, the boy was discovered to have had a twin brother who had died.
Mu Sochua, Cambodia's Minister for Women's Affairs, wants a permanent ban on all international adoptions to end what she sees as an inhuman and humiliating trade. "Cambodia is now seen as a country that sells its children. This marketing of our children is something that just appals me," she says.
Mu Sochua says she is aware of cases where desperately poor parents and single mothers have been coerced into selling their children for as little as $US20. Others are tricked by orphanage recruiters into "temporarily" handing over their children with promises that they will be given food and medical care, only to discover later that they have been sold for adoption.
"The recruiters go after desperate families, women in the countryside who can't afford to care for their children and even women in hospital who have just given birth. I have seen women who have gone crazy looking for children who they thought were being cared for but who were immediately sold for adoption," she says.
The American freeze and the tighter controls being imposed by European governments have seen a sharp fall in the number of children passing through the country's orphanages - a fact which reinforces the view that most of the children being adopted are neither legitimate orphans nor voluntarily abandoned.
At the Phnom Penh Nutrition Centre - accused in the past of involvement in child trafficking - director Yuon Sovanna defends her role in providing more than 300 children for international adoption over the past 10 years. "It is better than the children living here. At least they have the chance of a decent life," she says.
But the downturn in the adoption business sparked by the US moratorium, which has seen only 27 cases processed by the centre this year compared with about 100 in the year leading up to the ban, threatens the future of Phnom Penh's oldest state orphanage.
Of the centre's 107 remaining children, 57 are disabled and 35 are HIV-positive with no prospect of being accepted for adoption. The burden of feeding, clothing and caring for these children must now be faced without much of the income derived from adoptions.
"We just live from day to day. We have to try to keep going for the sake of these children but it is very difficult," says Yuon Sovanna. "If we don't care for them, who will?"
While Chhay Toro will soon be off to his new home in Canada, most of the other children he will leave behind at the centre face a future as bleak as their past.