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By Laurie Penny
June 18, 2011 / nzherald.co.nz
In rural Nepal, where the going rate for a healthy orphan is US$6000 ($7449), about 600 children are missing.
They were taken by agents who came to the villages promising parents they would educate the children and give them a better life in the capital, sometimes for a steep fee. The children never returned.
Between 2001 and 2007, hundreds of Nepali children with living parents were falsely listed as orphans and adopted by high-paying Western couples a world away.
One widow, according to the child protection charity Terre des Hommes, was unable to feed her seven children and sent them to an urban "child centre", where three were quickly adopted without her consent by rich Westerners.
Another, Sunita, was told by sneering authorities she would never see her child again. She doused herself in kerosene and struck a match.
Tens of thousands of babies, toddlers and young children are now adopted across international borders every year, according to Unicef.
The Nepali adoption industry is part of a broader child-trafficking trend which saw some "orphans" from the rural provinces of Humla and Jumla sold to circuses. Western prospective parents, however, are the preferred revenue stream. Adoption brought US$2 million a year into the country before 2007, when the programme was suspended pending an inquiry that uncovered many cases of abduction and improper financial gain.
Nepal is not the only country where international conventions on the rights of children have been breached as unscrupulous middlemen trade toddlers like livestock to desperate Western couples.
The process is simple: parents in Europe and America contact an adoption agency in the country of their choice, either privately or via a home agency.
Money changes hands, and their papers and the papers of the child are checked, the latter being easy to falsify. More money changes hands, and the child goes home with new parents.
Many of these adoptions are legitimate, beneficial and bring nothing but joy to the new parents and hope to the child. But there is another side. The possibilities for corruption and backhand profit are immense, because the emotional stakes are so high.
"When people want something so very much, like a baby, the amount of money they are prepared to throw at it can be limitless," said Andy Elvin of Children and Families Across Borders.
"In some countries, those amounts of money on offer mean that people do things they wouldn't otherwise do, and that's the problem."
According to Terre des Hommes, there is now, in many cases, "an industry around adoption in which profit, rather than the best interests of the child, takes centre stage".
The business is a seller's market, because there are far fewer orphans in need of adoption than Western prospective parents wishing to adopt.
Although many children adopted in this way do enjoy loving, stable homes with their new families, the number of truly "adoptable children" in overseas orphanages is smaller than the number of prospective parents.
Even in the aftermath of wars and natural disasters, those without a single relative to provide proper care is insufficient to meet the demand for exotic orphans.
After the tsunami in Japan, many Westerners inquired as to when and how they would be able to adopt a tsunami orphan, only to be told any child left parentless would be rehoused with extended family.
There is sometimes a distinct missionary element to this charity.
Christian lobby groups exhort congregations to demonstrate their faith by adopting foreign orphans from countries that know neither Jesus nor Walmart. Networks exist to help individual ministries organise funds to pay the orphanages and middlemen who supply the babies.
Last year, 10 Southern Baptists "obeyed God's calling" by smuggling 33 Haitian children - most solicited from living parents - across the Dominican border to await adoption by American believers.
All were jailed for a time but Christian adoption lobbies in the United States are putting increasing political pressure on organisations such as Unicef to ratify their agenda rather than raising ethical issues about the human rights of the children involved.
There are more mundane reasons why Western couples might wish to adopt overseas rather than be matched with one of the tens of thousands of children in need of adoption at home (many of whom do not match, in age or background, the ideal child some would-be parents want).
One Ukrainian tourist website boasts that "Ukraine has very few restrictions" and adds that unlike many countries, which seek to eliminate unfairness with rigorous matching systems, "prospective parents have the chance to choose the child they wish to adopt".
"Ukrainian children are typically family-oriented, caring, make attachments easily," enthuses the site, as if it were selling a new breed of house pet. "They look to their new parents with adoration."
Elvin, of Children and Families Across Borders, said: "There is an almost inexhaustible demand for very young children to adopt. People looking to adopt are generally looking to adopt children under the age of 3, and preferably under the age of 1. That's your essential problem.
"In America, which is the biggest importer, if you like, there are 23,000 children in the foster system waiting for adoption, but most of them will be aged 5 to 16. There's a very rich, powerful and well-resourced inter-country adoption lobby in the US."
The leading supplier of babies for adoption is China, which sent 5078 children abroad in 2009. It used to be Vietnam, then Guatemala (at one point one in every 100 babies there was sent for adoption to the US). Ethiopia, which until recently, was sending 50 children daily out of the country, announced a clampdown in March. No one knows where the agencies and parents will turn next.
* In 2009, the last year for which reliable figures are available, the top five adopting countries took in 24,839 children from overseas.
* Half of these, 12,753, went to the US, with Italy taking 3964, Spain and France around 3000 each, and Canada 2122.
* China, the leading source of babies for adoption, sent 5078 children abroad in 2009.
* Russia sent 4039 and 4564 came from Ethiopia, one of a range of countries which, through lax regulation, had a vogue as a ready source of babies.