By Amber Moffett, Graduate Associate Director
Why choose to adopt a child from another country? For many, it’s the inability to have a child themselves. For others, it may be that they simply want to provide a child with the opportunity for a better life than what would be provided them in a third-world orphanage. But imagine you have adopted a child, only to find out later that this very child you have grown to love and cherish was actually kidnapped and sold into an adoption scheme. Though this isn’t every intercountry adoption (ICA) story, it is the incredibly unfortunate story of many.
Several interesting parallels can be seen between ICA and human trafficking. Both increase in times of armed conflict or in post-conflict settings. We saw this happen in the final days of the Vietnam War when Operation Babylift was carried out. Rumors of what the approaching communists would do to children fathered by American soldiers were used to coerce mothers into relinquishing their children to Americans who would fly them back to the US to be adopted and given a “better life.” Similarly, El Salvador saw children being sold into illegal adoption networks during their civil war ending in 1992.
Another major parallel is the difference in national wealth between countries of origin and countries of destination. Many of the primary sending countries for both ICA and human trafficking are poorer countries (Guatemala, areas of China, Sierra Leone, Venezuela), whereas the countries of destination are often much wealthier (United States, United Kingdom, Australia, etc.) In this way, it becomes apparent that poverty is a major driving factor of both activities. When each child adoption is able to bring in anywhere from $25,000-50,000 to the local economy, fraudulent adoption can become a very lucrative industry, particularly for those in low-income countries.
Furthermore, both flourish in areas in which corruption is rampant and regulation is either non-existent or unenforced. Kevin Bales found that governmental corruption was the biggest predictor of human trafficking in a country of origin. Work done within the Human Trafficking Center has also found similar results – that corruption is one of the primary driving forces in the existence of human trafficking within a country. Similarly, ICA is seen with tremendous prevalence within corrupt countries. Of the top ten sending countries for ICA between 2003 and 2010, all but one was found to be highly rated on corruption indices.
It may come as a surprise to many, but despite the similarities found, illegal ICA is not considered to be human trafficking. In order to be qualify as human trafficking, three criteria must be met – Act, Means, and Purpose. Illegal and fraudulent adoption only has the first two of these three required elements. Though there definitely can be individual instances found in which all three qualifications apply, generally the child is not considered to be exploited.
Getting this issue covered under the US human trafficking statutes has proven difficult. One reason for this is money. As previously stated, ICA brings in quite a profit for many adoption agencies in both the US and in sending countries. Another reason is how hard it can be for adoptive parents to face the reality of how they got their child. Many fear they might lose their children to the biological parents that never gave up hope and want the child back. Others simply aren’t interested in facing the truth that they paid thousands of dollars to someone who may have played a role in the kidnapping of their adopted child. Because of these reasons, it’s been difficult to garner enough support in the US to modify US law to include “children bought/taken for the purposes of adoption” in the legal definition for human trafficking.
This is not to say that there is no legal recourse for these types of unethical practices. Alternative international statutes can be helpful in deterring fraudulent practices in ICA. The Convention on the Rights of the Child may prove useful, stating that “as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents” is a right of every child. It could be argued that children illegally adopted have been denied this right. Furthermore, the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption stipulates that “intercountry adoptions take place in the best interests of the child… and prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children.” However, what is considered to be in the “best interests of the child” is subject to wide interpretation, and not all countries are signatories to this convention.
There also has been a compelling argument made for the birth mothers to be considered the victims of human trafficking in instances of illegal adoption, falling under all three criteria mentioned above (action, means and purpose). In some instances, birth mothers are recruited (the action) and forced, coerced, or deceived (the means), resulting in the acquisition of a child (exploitation of the woman, the purpose).
To be clear, this is not to say that all ICAs are the product of the unethical practices of those looking to make a profit. It is also not to say that ICAs should be discouraged or discontinued. However, due diligence needs to be paid on all levels. Local governments need to be held accountable in protecting parents and children against kidnapping and coercive practices used to make a profit. If we are to ensure that the rights of children are protected and that adoptions are, in fact, “in the best interest of the child,” extreme caution and extensive vetting needs to be the name of the game.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC
Photo by jarmoluk via Pixabay
The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.
Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.
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