Baby Traffic

November 05 2003 | by

DID YOU KNOW that Angelina Jolie, oscar-winning star of Girl, Interrupted, and famous for her Tomb Raider movies, adopted a Cambodian baby boy in March 2002? She had “fallen in love” with the country and its people during filming of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Did you know too that she and her husband were delayed several months in bringing the child, Maddox, into the U.S. until its embassy in Cambodia approved the adoption? Whether “yes” or “no”, it is certain that the publicity surrounding the case raised the profile of an issue that causes considerable international concern: Cambodia’s illegal child-trafficking trade and, indeed, child trafficking internationally.
The U.S. government had banned adoption of Cambodian babies by Americans in December 2001, following reports that infants were being bought by illegal networks from destitute mothers and sold to orphanages for adoption. Maddox’s case became one among hundreds being processed on a case-by-case basis to make sure that the children were genuine orphans. Jolie and her husband, Billy Bob Thornton, from whom she is now estranged, said they first saw the boy in November 2001 while touring a Cambodian orphanage and instantly “felt a connection”. They wanted to save him from being raised in that environment.


Although the adoption of Maddox was cleared, in July 2002 the couple found themselves at the centre of controversy, involving an Hawaiian-born former dancer, Lauryn Galindo, who had delivered the baby to them. The head of the Cambodian human rights agency Licadho, Dr. Kek Galabru, claimed that Maddox might not have been adopted, but purchased. Galindo, who is based in Cambodian capital Phnom Pen and acts as a go-between for American couples and Cambodian ‘orphans’, charges an average of $9,000 per adoption and was accused of buying Maddox and other babies from their mothers for sums as low as $100. She herself admitted that about half her fee is paid under the table to government officials as “tips”, a euphemism for bribes. Jolie reportedly hired private investigators to ensure her son really was an orphan, but the allegations were embarrassing for the actress, who has served as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
There are many less high profile cases where corruption has actually been proven – for example that of New Zealander Dale Edmonds and her husband, a Singaporean citizen, who went through the process of adopting a Cambodian toddler boy and his six-year-old sister. The children had been left by their father at the rural orphanage, so the couple were told, because, as a widower, he could not care for them alone. Edmonds decided to spend eight weeks in Cambodia with the two children before bringing them home. She also intended to research where the couple’s money was going in “fees”. During her final week in Cambodia her ‘daughter’ pointed to a landmark in Phnom Penh and said that her family lived there and that she missed her sisters. The story the couple had been told unravelled. “We had been lied to, our children mistreated and, despite all the research we had done before the adoption, we had become another Cambodian adoptive family with serious problems,” says Edmonds on a website she has since set up to promote ethical adoption from Cambodia. “Many of the children adopted from Cambodia have been truly in need of adoption; many haven’t” she adds.
There is significant evidence that impoverished Cambodian mothers are offered large sums of cash to give up their children to orphanages where they can be adopted by wealthy Westerners. After the horror of the 1970s Khmer Rouge genocide, in which 1.7 million people are believed to have died under the brutal ultra-Maoist regime of Pol Pot, Cambodia became the focus of a huge United Nations reconstruction programme. But although the country is now at peace and fairly stable, the vulnerable struggle to survive. The war-scarred country is marked by a destructive mixture of poverty, desperation and a moral vacuum left by the decades of conflict.

Out of control

Yet those critical of the U.S. moratorium on Cambodian adoptions argue that instances of wrong-doing should not blind the authorities to the opportunities adoption presents for Cambodian orphans to escape poverty with U.S. families. In December 2002, a petition was presented to President George W. Bush calling for the suspension on adoptions to be lifted. It argued that thousands of Cambodian orphans should not be denied a better future in America with loving adopted families.
The problem of trafficking in babies is in fact an international one. In July 2000, the United Nations children’s fund (Unicef) called for worldwide action to stop the growing trade in selling babies for adoption. It described the situation as “getting out of control”, with many adoptions part of a growing illegal trafficking industry. Most of the children coming from developing countries are sold to couples in the developed world trying to get around tough adoption laws at home. Many of them are willing to pay $20,000 or more for a baby.
In the relatively poor Central American country of Guatemala, selling babies is big business. According to Unicef, the trade is worth an estimated $25m a year. Some of the adoptions are considered legitimate, but many more are part of a thriving and unscrupulous adoption industry. “If you look on the internet it is easy to find 10-day-old children, and more and more couples from industrialised countries use this channel,” says Rudi Tarneden, a spokesman for Unicef Germany. Casa Alianza, an organisation based in Guatemala that rehabilitates street children and takes up the cases of parents seeking the return of adopted children, said in 2000 that they knew of at least 27 cases where a child was taken for adoption against the parents’ will. The Casa Alianza lawyer dealing with cases of alleged abduction for adoption, Amalia Eraso, said: “The most common situation is where the mother is pressured by her husband or a lawyer to give up a child for the money”.


The first time that Guatemalan children were adopted by foreigners in substantial numbers was in the early 1980s at the height of the 36-year civil war when thousands of children had been orphaned and displaced as the military carried out a scorched earth policy of wiping out the Mayan villages which, they said, had harboured leftwing guerrillas. In 1996, the year of the peace agreement that has brought a degree of normalcy to the country, there were 731 international adoptions. By 1999, the figure had more than doubled to 1,645. International adoptions in Guatemala are almost all “privatised”, which is to say that they are not organised through the government but by foreign adoption agencies dealing with Guatemalan lawyers. The total cost of adoption to a would-be parent ranges from around $12,000 to $30,000. Of this, the agency might take a fee of around $3,000, the Guatemalan lawyers between $10,000 and $15,000 and the mother will receive, in some cases, “expenses” of between $500 and $1,000. The stories of malpractice have already led embassies including those of the U.S. - where 62% of the adoptions take place- Britain and Canada to introduce DNA tests to ensure that the woman signing over the child is the real mother.
In March 2002, the BBC reported that babies in Kenya only days old were being sold for up to 60,000 shillings [about $750] each in a Nairobi slum. Children’s officers discovered that a baby syndicate was acquiring fake birth certificates made out with the names of foster parents as a way of covering their tracks. They found one woman with a blank birth certificate and a stash of drugs, suggesting, they said, that the syndicate was also dealing in drugs. The traffickers were targeting young mothers, particularly those who became pregnant by accident and did not want their babies, offering to take care of the infants in return for cash “compensation”; effectively buying the babies from them, a children’s officer said.
Vietnam announced in January 2002 that it was planning to amend its adoption laws in an effort to stop the trafficking of babies through overseas adoption agencies. Babies can be sold for up to $50,000 each. Vietnamese officials say 2,000 babies have been adopted by overseas families in the last decade. Many of them have been taken to the U.S. and France, sometimes with fake documents. Late last year, the state media reported that police had broken a major baby-selling ring, with the prosecution of 16 people in the southern city of Ho Chi Minh. But the illegal practices continue, at so-called baby hotels where deals are done, through orphanages and through the traffickers themselves - the intermediaries who find the babies and sell them.


The Church has spoken out on the issue, based on its local experience. In April 2003, a Catholic bishop urged the Indonesian government to act against trafficking of women and babies which had mushroomed since 1980. Bishop Agustinus Agus of Sintang noted that the problem was growing in his diocese and in neighbouring Pontianak archdiocese and Sanggau diocese. All three are in the West Kalimantan province that borders the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo Island. The bishop, based in Sintang, 840 kilometres north of Jakarta, cited local reports about a rampant trade in babies and women in Sarawak. According to one report, he said, a number of pregnant women were recruited to work in the state. “After several months the women returned to their villages, and the villagers found that they were not pregnant anymore, but did not bring their babies with them,” he said. Other sources added that in Sarawak the babies were sold to childless couples at prices between 5 million rupiah (about $575) and 10 million rupiah.
Clearly, the issue affects people in all walks of life in all continents. There are many good-hearted people involved on both sides of the debate; both those who want to protect vulnerable mothers from exploitation, and those who want to take children out of grim institutions or circumstances and put them into caring homes. International efforts are geared towards protecting the human rights of the babies concerned and ensuring that they are not downgraded to the level of commodities, to be traded like any other goods.

Updated on October 06 2016