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Human Trafficking Center

Trafficking in Children? Actually No – Why Illegal Adoption is NOT Child Trafficking


Apr 2017



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.

Parallels Between ICA and Human Trafficking

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.

Legally Failing Children in Illegal Adoption

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.

Alternative Legal Recourse

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


About the Human Trafficking Center

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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4 Responses to “Trafficking in Children? Actually No – Why Illegal Adoption is NOT Child Trafficking”

  1. j

    Let me see Amber are you trying to say that by sliding kids out of wartorn risky areas,- dead parents, no suitable kin, nearly no chance of survival or growth and they will not do well under any other means, illegal adoption is suitable and ought not be considered human trafficking? Or are you trying to delineate that adopting a child illegally or selling one is not necessarily human trafficking but rather it depends on how unusual or usual the reason may be.

    • Natasha and Stephen Koll

      A very large gap exists in knowledge and conversations: what happens to human trafficked children from a foreign country adopted into the US through illegal adoptions ? What do these children need to be able to break free from the cycle of human trafficking in their new country, the US? It seems that these children need to be acknowledged as a sub-population including to meet their needs for human trafficking services and placements to keep them safe and help them heal. Without these conversations, the US becomes another placement that does not care to know about the needs of these children and enables through omission the human trafficking cycle to continue. Can research and knowledge building concerning this sub-population that is here now, unacknowledged as yet, begin, in the best interests of the child victim and the adult victim (each of which may have different needs)?

  2. Amber


    This blog is not arguing that human trafficking never occurs within international adoption. In fact, there are instances in which, yes, the child absolutely is exploited and therefore the situation turns into human trafficking. The argument being made here is that just because there are illegal circumstances in which the child was put up for adoption does not make it human trafficking. In most instances of illegal international adoption (not all, but most), the child is NOT considered to be exploited (under both US TVPA and the Palermo Protocol) and therefore does not qualify as human trafficking. As the laws stand now, the two cannot be conflated and therefore need to be examined on a case by case basis as to whether or not it qualifies as human trafficking, or simply illegal adoption.

  3. Christine

    Oh please – There is absolutely HT within international child adoptions. I covered that angle in Guatemala in 2003 with another UK journalist and Casa Alianza. You act like there is no such thing as a baby breeding farms; that there are not cases and investigations where Chinese infants were found in suitcases. I suggest to you all as a seasoned journalist, you need to stop looking at this as if HT fits YOUR definition but what the nature of the crime actually entails. And, please – dont give us Kevin Bales – he concocted 27 million – literally made up the bogus number b/c the premise of one of his book was based upon 27 million! For those of us in the anti-human trafficking arena in the field, and Ive covered this for over 17 years – please stop with the protracted lightweight analysis! You act like there has never been investigations of ICA before 2017. that is just rubbish! We have found trafficking, and yes, corruption – the motive was MONEY and in some cases, pedophile rings!

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