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.
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.
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'."
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.
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
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
"That clinic is not supposed to conduct any other blood
tests, only to make the treatment for my children," he said.
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."
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."
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
Both men said that the orphanage relies on private
donations for its funding but generally received a small amount in gifts from
"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.
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
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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