​Suspected covert adoption center uncovered | Phnom Penh Post

Suspected covert adoption center uncovered


Publication date
14 September 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Vong Sokheng and Bill Bainbridge

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Cambodia's troubled adoption 'industry' is again in the spotlight after a

raid on a clinic uncovered what NGO's suspect is a baby trafficking center.

Bill Bainbridge and Vong Sokheng investigate.

Worldwide, adoption programs have been blighted with claims of baby

trafficking: Romania put a halt to international adoption in June this year and

Vietnam jailed the members of a trafficking ring in January, 2000.

Kha On, alias Chan Sareurn, being held by police during the raid.


months after a nine month moratorium on international adoptions from Cambodia

ended, evidence has emerged of a well-organized ring that buys babies from

impoverished mothers to supply orphanages with 'adoptable' children. The arrest

and release of four people suspected of baby trafficking has fueled fears that

the international adoption 'business' is back in full swing.

The case

came to light after an NGO working with HIV positive women noticed that two

toddlers belonging to a mother of three involved in their program had

disappeared. A case worker said that it was not the first time the organization

had encountered sick mothers selling their babies.

"I didn't want to see

it happen again so I suggested to the mother that we could help find her

children," the case worker said.

The children's mother confessed she had

sold her children for $150 and then, regretting it, had demanded the children be

returned. She was told that she could have back her HIV positive son if she paid

$45 for the test. She then led workers from Licadho to the Tuol Kork brothel

that had purchased the children.

The brothel owner directed them to a

middleman, 31-year-old Kha On, alias Chan Sareurn, who had paid an undisclosed

amount for the two toddlers. However, the children had already been taken to

another location that On refused to reveal.

Licadho enlisted the Tuol

Kork police in an attempt to pressure On into divulging the location of the

children. When they arrived they discovered an extensive operation housed in two

Tuol Kork properties linked to the Asian Orphans' Association


Twelve mostly female 'orphans' were divided between the two

houses; some were in cribs while others were found on the mezzanine


Rescued or kidnapped? - Human rights workers remove "orphans" from one of two Tuol Kork houses on September 3.

The case has caused alarm among NGOs and some prospective parents



The Post has spoken to a number of prospective and recent adopting parents,

all of whom indicated that the paying of large bribes was obligatory. They

quoted figures for adoptions arranged independently of between $3,500 and $7,000

in fees paid both to people in the government and 'donations' in cash or

equipment to the orphanages.

They said that for an additional fee, the

ministries involved had indicated they would be willing to overlook vital

documents, including police reports.

The parents, who were arranging

their own adoptions locally and wished to remain anonymous, expressed

frustration and anxiety over the process in which they could not be certain of

receiving a genuinely abandoned baby.

On said in an interview with police

and human rights workers that babies are exchanged for as little as 50,000

riels. If the infant is HIV free then they are sent to America.

On told

the interviewers that it was the center's policy not to reveal the whereabouts

of the orphanage to parents to prevent them from trying to get their child


"The center always encounters problems with the parents of the

babies" he said.

"They think 'it was my child who is being sent to

American people and I received only a little amount of money while the center

receives a huge amount [and that is] not fair'."

Big money


Several new facilitators, who help prospective parents from

overseas find a child, have entered the Cambodian market this year and the

number of children being adopted has sky-rocketed.

Three infants as police found them on the floor of a Tuol Kork house September 3.


lists Cambodian adoption programs, eight of which began operating this year. By

international standards Cambodia is one of the cheapest places - if not the

cheapest - to adopt a child in the world. However, the costs are still


US-based agencies charge between $12,000 and $18,000 to

arrange adoptions. Around $9,000 is designated as 'in-country fees', which go to

the orphanages and bureaucrats. Cambodia-US adoption fee turnover is currently

worth $10 million a year.

In 1999, the last full year for foreign

adoptions, the US embassy processed 240 visas for children adopted by US

citizens. An embassy spokesman told the Post that on average 96 visas a month

had been issued since March 14, bringing the total to 576. The French Embassy

did not respond to several inquiries for figures.

A Cambodian foreign

affairs official told the Post that that Cambodian orphans and children had also

been adopted by British, Italians and Germans.

International adoptions

resumed after Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree March 14 designed to

tighten the system, which has long been plagued by allegations of bribery and

baby buying.

The most significant change in the sub-decree was the

implementation of a three month 'cooling off' period to allow women to reclaim

children 'sold' to orphanages.


For prospective parents as

well, adopting children in Cambodia is complicated. They must negotiate a

complex procedure to receive approval from the Ministries of Social Affairs

(MOSALVY), Foreign Affairs and the Council of Ministers.

Article 13 of

the adoption sub-decree says that persons "may make charitable contributions

voluntarily to [MOSALVY] for the sake of the orphaned babies or children",

although it makes no reference to specific amounts.

After the police

raid, the ministries involved clammed up. Officials at MOSALVY said that

Minister Ith Samheng had issued a directive the day after the raid prohibiting

public officials from speaking to the press on the matter. The Post understands

that a similar directive was issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

MOSALVY did not honor a commitment to respond to the Post's questions in

writing by September 11.

One of the 12 children taken into care after the

raid on AOA was hospitalized suffering from malnutrition. Licadho investigators

also found evidence that the children were not provided with health


The oldest of the children, nine-year-old Bopha (not her real

name), told Licadho that she was taken in six months ago to act as a carer to

feed and change the younger babies.

"I was looking after babies every

day," she said, adding that every four to five days "babies come through, get

blood tests and go out again".

However, AOA's director, Puth Serey,

denied that other babies were brought in for blood tests. He said that the two

houses were a legally registered medical clinic and had no authority to conduct

blood tests.

"That clinic is not supposed to conduct any other blood

tests, only to make the treatment for my children," he said.

Bopha also

told investigators that children were never taken to hospital but were treated

by a nurse at the 'clinic'. She said she had seen one infant become ill and die

on the premises.


AOA's lawyer, Chhit Boravuth, told

the Post that the raid was a complete misunderstanding. He said that the infants

were staying temporarily at the property while renovations were carried out at

the AOA center outside Phnom Penh.

"We were careless about one thing: we

forgot to make an official document on the transfer of the babies. That created

the confusion that led to police suspecting child trafficking" he


Licadho investigators have discovered two more women who claim to

have lost their children to AOA after being approached by agents. Both of their

children were found among the 12 seized infants.

One, a waitress, was

approached by a couple who live in the same street as the 'clinic' where the

orphans were found two days after giving birth. The couple offered $70 for her

baby and told her that "an organization will look after your baby". When she

tried to get her child back, she was told she would have to pay $210.


cried every day and I didn't know where to complain," she told the human rights


The couple refused to divulge the child's location and instead

gave her a photograph of the baby. When the news of the raid was reported she

immediately went to Licadho.

After she accurately described her baby's

birth marks, Licadho investigators concluded that she was mother to one of the

12 seized children.

Ny Ka, 31, a carer at the houses, told police that

the women were paid $60 per baby per month to look after the infants.


their health is OK then they'll go to the US for new mothers," she told the

police during the raid.

However, AOA's Boravuth said that was simply not


"She is wrong to say this. AOA does not pay a salary to health

workers; they are volunteers and AOA is a humanitarian agency."

He also

disputed the assertion that any children had been bought.

"At the time

the mother came we hesitated because we were afraid it may look like

trafficking, but when she begged us we decided to take care of her babies," he


Serey says the AOA has never given money for children and maintains

the 12 babies were genuinely abandoned.

"They were abandoned and the

local authority assigned them to the orphanage so we had no choice but to take

them. [The local authority] has papers that prove that this child was abandoned

or that the family has passed away."

Release surprises

To the

surprise of human rights groups the four alleged perpetrators were released the

day after their arrest. Police received letters signed by the district governor

of Dangko, Kong Saran, and the commune chief of Samroeng Krom, Tuoch Pin,

authorizing AOA to take custody of the children.

AOA representative Yu

Sakon met Licadho field officers the following day and offered to exchange the

two children for the 12 taken into Licadho's custody and placed with an

international NGO. Licadho refused to link the cases and reunited the woman with

her children and pressed for an investigation.

Puth Serey, a former

tourism official, "import/exporter" and President of AOA, denied that he was an

adoption facilitator, saying he had "no right" to facilitate


His lawyer, Boravuth, said: "We don't think about seeking

adoptive parents overseas, because we are only a humanitarian


While Boravuth conceded that adoptive parents sometimes

adopt at AOA, which has been operating since 1999, it was only on an ad hoc and

private basis.

Both men said that the orphanage relies on private

donations for its funding but generally received a small amount in gifts from

adoptive parents.

"Some adoptive families give small funds, sometimes

some medication, maybe $100 or $200," Serey said.

Although Serey says he

does not work with any US-based international adoption agencies, he is listed as

an "adoption facilitator" for at least three on the CambodiaAdopt.com website.

The three are: Children's House International, Ventures for Children, and

Angel's Haven Outreach. Serey's "adoption referral policy" was published on

email discussion lists in July by the staff of Angel's Haven.


Haven emails clients recommending they choose a boy, because there is a shortage

of girls. They also assure their customers that each child receives examinations

from a Western-trained doctor.

None of the US-based organizations

responded to the Post's emails requesting information on their relationship with


Email postings to an adoption group list, however, indicated that

Serey had been used as a facilitator by numerous adoptive parents, including one

of a three and a-half month old baby approved only days ago.

Serey denied

all knowledge of this or any other cases, as well as any references to his name

on websites and email lists.

"I don't know who published my name. I did

not authorize it and I have no idea who would do a very bad thing like this," he


Laws lacking

If nothing else, the case has shown a lack of any

effective law regulating the at times murky business of adoptions in Cambodia.

There are no laws either to regulate adoptions or to combat baby trafficking -

the law provides only for trafficking for the purposes of sex. However, legal

experts said that other articles such as illegal confinement, kidnapping,

corruption and forgery could potentially be applied in baby trafficking


Minister for Women's and Veteran's Affairs Mu Sochua said that a

law on adoption was necessary to address irregularities in the system. The law

should also outlaw any exchange of cash for children.

"Parents should not

lose their guardianship of children. There should never be any money involved

and parents should remain the legal guardians," she said.

"If it's a pure

orphanage then you don't give money to the supposed parents. Children should not

be in there if they have parents. It is not a halfway house or a shelter."


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