Liberia's 'orphan' trade

Date: 2008-11-14
Source: BBC

By Nadene Ghouri
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

All John Varkpola has to remind him of his niece is a few photographs.

"I miss her, but I hope she is having a good life," he says sadly.

Five years ago, John's sister died in some of the worst fighting in Liberia's brutal 14-year civil war, leaving a new-born baby in his care.

John named the baby Faith and prayed for her survival.

But, with three children of his own and no job, he struggled.

When an elder in his church said she knew of a charity which would feed and educate Faith, he agreed to hand her over, believing he could still have contact with his niece.

There is no chance of that.

Because today baby Faith has a new name and a new life with an adoptive family in the US. Around 600 children like her have been adopted from Liberia to North America in the last two years alone.

John is adamant his niece was adopted overseas without his consent.

"We did not talk about adoption," he says. "For me as a parent, as an uncle I still want to have access to her. I don't want her to be with another person. It is not what we discussed."

Exploited

That is not unusual according to Liberian child welfare specialist Jeremliak Piah.

"Most of the people who commit their children for adoption do not really understand what adoption is. They did not understand that adoption meant relinquishing ownership of your child."

He also says the agencies deliberately target the illiterate.

"They don't read and that is why in most cases they come back and say: 'Yes, I remember I put my fingerprint on something but I didn't know exactly what I was putting my fingerprint on'."

And the agencies exploit out-dated legislation.

In recent years, inter-country adoption has been governed by stringent international guidelines like the Hague Convention - designed to prevent trafficking and ensure adoption is in the best interest of the child.

Liberia has not signed up to the Convention.

Liberia's adoption laws were written in the 1950s and deal only with domestic cases. They make no mention of inter-country adoptions.

That loophole opens the door for anyone to set themselves up as a private adoption business and to operate with near impunity.

In a bid to crack down on this fast-growing trade, the Liberian government has imposed a moratorium on all new adoptions.

But it is not working.

'Full swing'

Posing as a couple seeking to adopt to Canada, we went undercover to meet self-styled Bishop Ed Kofi - who runs one of the largest private children's homes in Monrovia from which around 100 children have been adopted in recent years.

Mr Kofi bragged that the adoption business is in "full swing", and promised that for $5,000 he could arrange an adoption.

Having met us just twice, he also offered to deliver a child to us - something which flouts all international guidelines on child protection.

Later, when we revealed our true identities, he sat down to talk with us and was unapologetic about continuing his business, despite the ban. He shrugged off concerns about child welfare as "rumours".

Most of the children in orphanages like the one Mr Kofi runs are not actually orphans.

Most have at least one living parent, many were placed there by desperately poor parents.

Degrading treatment

Unscrupulous agents go into shanty towns and slum villages, convincing parents to give up their children on the promise of free room and board and a good education - something few families can afford.

It is an offer hard to turn down, but it is also too good to be true.

Most of the orphanages where the children are housed fall well below minimum standards. A UN report published in 2007 documented rampant abuse and neglect and "inhuman and degrading treatment of children".

Since the end of the war the number of private orphanages has tripled - from 40 to 120. There is a simple reason for that - it is a business.

Orphanage owners receive a state subsidy for each child they take. And some of those children can then be adopted internationally for fees as high as $15,000.

But, in a country where corruption can be endemic, many choose to look away.

Vabah Gayflor, minister for gender, and one of the most influential women in cabinet, is one who does not: "Many of these institutions have been established by people who are exploiting. People are getting scores of money out of this and they want to make sure that they stay in business," she says.

"If you have Liberian children being marketed like this it's a shame. It is a shame."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 13 November, 2008 at 1102 GMT. It was repeated on Monday, 17 November, 2008 at 2030 GMT.

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