Cambodia's Stolen Babies

Date: 2006-07-01

The demand to adopt infants by Westerners has created a shameful
By Brian Eads

Makara Svay* gave birth to her third child, a girl, in an abandoned boxcar behind Phnom Penh railway station in May 2002. Deserted by the child's father, the pretty 23-year-old could not afford a midwife and relied on neighbours to help with the delivery. ''I nearly died giving birth,'' she remembers. Her newborn daughter, Bopha*, was small and malnourished.

The pair were still weak and sickly one month later when a Cambodian woman in her 30s climbed into the railway car and introduced herself as Madame Prum*. ''She said, ‘You are very poor. You don't have food for your child. Maybe she will die,' '' Svay says. ''She said, ‘I will adopt your child. I will care for her myself.' ''

When Prum promised Svay she could see her baby in the future, it seemed like an offer the unschooled peasant girl could not refuse. At 18 she had left the countryside to look for work in Phnom Penh. Abandoned by two successive partners there, she had been compelled to give up her two sons: one to his father, the other to an uncle far from the city. Now, homeless and practically penniless, she ''felt pity for my child and agreed to give her to the woman.''

To formalise the arrangement, Prum asked Svay to put her thumbprint on an official-looking document. Unable to read or write, she did as she was told. In return, Prum gave her $18, a 50 kilogram sack of rice worth $15 and a phone number. ''If you want to see your baby, just call me,'' she smiled.

When Svay called the number the following month, a gruff-voiced man answered. ''He was rude,'' she says, her eyes misting over. Then the line went dead. Intimidated and distraught, Svay did not call again.

She now wonders if her child was falsely labelled an orphan and sold for adoption overseas. She has no way of finding out and no likelihood of ever seeing her daughter again. ''I am alone,'' she sobs. ''I have nothing in my life. I am an empty shell.''

It is suspected that there are hundreds more victims like Makara Svay in Cambodia – poor and vulnerable young mothers duped into parting with their newborns to feed a lucrative international trade in babies.

Law enforcement and human rights investigators say the adoption racket has operated for about a decade and is worth millions of dollars. Cambodian government figures show that, since 1995, around 2000 Cambodian infants have been adopted. Though no-one knows how many overseas adoptions were legitimate and how many involved buying and selling children, a 2003 report by the Dutch embassy in Bangkok concluded that child trafficking cases that have been exposed are ''the tip of the iceberg.''

It is estimated that Americans have adopted at least 800 Cambodian children, including some who were bought and sold. Some were probably treated badly in the process. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who visited orphanages and ''stash houses,'' where children were kept waiting for adoption, described conditions as horrendous, with naked, filthy babies, hammocks covered in faeces, rusty cribs, torn window screens and the stink of human excrement.

The adoption racket is driven by wealthy Westerners eager to acquire cute Asian infants, by unscrupulous adoption agents and orphanages ready to supply them at a price and by corrupt government officials willing to approve fabricated documents for bribes. In Cambodia, many children categorised as orphans actually have living parents, and almost anyone with sufficient cash can buy a child.

Most Western couples want young and healthy babies. Some choose their child before arriving in Cambodia. According to the Dutch embassy report, some orphanages have posted photos and doctored histories on the Internet to attract prospective parents.

Adoption petitions and foreign visa applications routinely describe the children as abandoned, birth parents unknown. Yet in some cases they aren't abandoned and the birth family is known. Almost always a child's identity, birthplace and family background are falsified.

Many village chiefs are happy to sign a sham declaration for as little as $10. Because of the adoption racket, hundreds of children have lost their true identity forever. Birth parents cannot trace their offspring or find out what became of them. Meanwhile, thousands of unwanted orphans, in poor health, unappealing or past their sell-by date, languish in institutions.

Frequently, babies for overseas adoption are obtained via ''baby recruiters'' who target pregnant women in remote villages and persuade them to give up their newborns.

The experience of Khlok Noeun is typical. Encouraged by a recruiter immediately after her daughter gave birth in November 1999, Noeun took her two-day-old grandson to the Women and Orphans Vocational Association on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. According to Noeun, staff insisted first on testing his blood for HIV. ''They told me, ‘If good blood, we take him. If bad blood, no,''' she recalls.

When the child tested negative, Noeun says, the orphanage gave her $60 and promised to look after her grandson. ''They told me they take care of babies, and when they have grown up, they can return to take care of their parents,'' she says.

Three months later, Noeun learned that the baby had been adopted and taken overseas. ''We have no news. I don't believe he will ever come back,'' she says.

When Reader's Digest approached Chhim Naly, the orphanage director, for her response, she replied: ''I did not promise anything. Why this woman accuse me? This case is long time ago . . . Do not disturb me.''

Few parents have enough know-how to recover a lost child, and those who try seldom succeed. In November 2001, a homeless married couple asked the human rights organisation LICADHO to help them retrieve their one-month-old son. The mother said she had taken the child to a Phnom Penh clinic, where staff gave him a blood test to confirm that he was not HIV-positive, paid her $85 and then persuaded her to sign a declaration that she had given him up voluntarily. However, no-one had sought her husband's consent, and the couple wanted their baby back.

LICADHO investigators established that the clinic was owned by Dr Keo San, who was also the country director of the Holy Baby Foundation, believed to have ties with France. After being denied permission to see the babies at the orphanage, LICADHO was told that staff there refused to return the baby.

According to LICADHO, the official dossier stated that the child was ''abandoned,'' and his parents were ''unknown.'' Keo San told Reader's Digest that he couldn't remember the case and that no parents ever approached him about the return of their child.

On the question of paying parents for their children, he replied: ''I did not pay any money. I know my staff give a little money, but not $85. Maybe a few dollars because they pity the poor.''

Vong Lay Huort, the director of Holy Baby orphanage, said he remembered that a poor Cambodian woman, claiming to be the child's mother, gave the child to the clinic in 2001. ''The baby was taken by Holy Baby in a fair manner,'' he said, adding: ''No-one from our centre met the parents or asked about the parents . . . We did sign one document, but we do not need to be aware if the baby has parents.''

It is believed the child now lives in France with his adoptive parents. However, the question of his origin and whether he is a legitimate orphan remains a mystery.

By the late 1990s, Cambodia had gained a reputation as the quickest, easiest place to adopt a child and the baby business was booming. In 2000 and 2001, the US embassy issued 668 immigrant visas for Cambodian adoptions. ''The news of how easy it was spread like wildfire,'' says a Western diplomat. ''Why wait 18 months when you could do it in four to six weeks for $15,000?''

Among the first to popularise Cambodia as a marketplace for babies was American Lauryn Galindo, who is currently serving an 18-month sentence for visa fraud and money laundering in the US. According to her sentencing memorandum, she first went too Cambodia in 1990 and helped organise adoptions for a non-governmental organisation. In 1997, Galindo and her sister set up Seattle International Adoptions Inc (SIA), a private agency. Galindo operated from Cambodia as an ''adoption facilitator'' and helped American couples with the processing of Cambodian paperwork.

SIA was a lucrative business. Galindo's sentencing memorandum goes on to say that the business charged clients up to $11,500 in administrative fees and ''donations.'' The report estimates Galindo assisted in some 800 adoptions during her time in Cambodia.

Prosecutors, however, maintained that Galindo may have received as much as $9.2 million from adoptive parents. Part of the money funded a lavish lifestyle that included a $1.4 million beachfront home in Hawaii.

Officially, there are no Cambodian government fees for processing an adoption application. However, the defendant's report says that Galindo would provide some of the money to various officials in order to get the necessary paperwork.

Ultimately, in November 2004, a Seattle court found Galindo guilty of visa fraud and money laundering. According to Richard Cross, the ICE agent who led the investigation, Galindo could not be charged with baby trafficking because US law does not cover human trafficking for adoption purposes. ''If the law had existed, we would have charged her with baby-buying,'' he says.

Amid mounting evidence that Cambodian babies were being trafficked, the United States suspended the processing of adoptions from Cambodia in December 2001. By 2005, several European countries, including France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, had put a freeze on Cambodian adoptions.

It hasn't stopped the shameful traffic. In spring 2005, posing as would-be adopters, my wife and I visited half-a-dozen well-known orphanages around Phnom Penh. We discovered that it is still shockingly easy to buy a baby. Who we were, where we came from and whether we had proper paperwork were not an issue. Mostly we were asked, ''Do you want a boy or a girl?''

Says LICADHO president Kek Galabru, ''The Cambodian government has done little to eliminate adoption trafficking and clean up the adoption system. The same perpetrators are still in business.''

The government says it's working on a new adoption law, but without any political will, this will not address the real problem – lack of law enforcement. Real investigations and prosecutions are necessary to protect Cambodian children from being trafficked, but there's little indication that this will happen soon, says Galabru.

What's more, a number of Western countries – mainly Italy – still allow adoptions from Cambodia. In fact, four Italian organisations operate there. In 2002, 14 children went to Italy; by 2005, the number had risen to 76. ''Some agencies have Italian representatives in Cambodia to check the paperwork, especially in regard to the origin of the children,'' says Martina Cannetta, who has worked for Italian adoption groups. ''But I do not know of any Italian representatives in others. As far as I know, they have Khmer staff and mainly rely on Khmer orphanage directors and government officials. I regard this as a very dangerous practice due to the different understanding Cambodians have of adoption.''

International aid agencies estimate that the country has as many as 670,000 orphaned children. ''Cambodia is a country where a newborn is always welcomed to a family,'' says Cannetta. ''If children are abandoned, it is for serious reasons.'' These may include extreme poverty, but in most cases a child is abandoned if its parents die or if it has health problems. ''They are not necessarily healthy or beautiful or babies, but they need families,'' she says.

As long as the adoption racket and cruel trade in stolen babies are allowed to continue, it is unlikely that Cambodia's truly needy children will get them.

* Names changed for legal reasons


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