Deung Sopheap well remembers the day her two young children were stolen. "A man approached me on the street and said he was taking my two children for medical tests," says the gaunt young woman, curled up on a cot in an AIDS hospital here.
Ms. Sopheap says the man returned later and told her the children tested positive for HIV and that he wouldn't be giving them back. "He gave me some money and said my children may go to the United States [for adoption]," she says.
In Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia, adoption and baby trafficking are often two sides of the same coin. After a human-rights group alleged that women like Sopheap had their children stolen from them, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) suspended adoptions of Cambodian children by US parents in December, pending an investigation. Her children have since been returned to her.
Earlier this month, the US gave the green light to 45 of the 200-plus adoptions that were suspended. But the remaining US families are in legal limbo, awaiting word from the INS as to whether they can complete their pending adoptions.
Kim Woulfe was one of those parents. Mrs. Woulfe, who lives outside Chicago, says she came here hoping to sidestep the bureaucratic red tape involved in many foreign adoptions. "I set out to add to my family and do some great humanitarian act by coming to a third world country and taking a child that I can offer better life to," says Woulfe. "And from that I was made to feel like I was part of some baby-trafficking scheme," she adds.
No one knows how widespread baby-trafficking is in Cambodia. Licadho, (League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights), which works to help protect victims of trafficking, says it has received a half dozen complaints that detail how various "recruiters" in villages and hospitals identify impoverished and vulnerable women who are pregnant or have just given birth.
The recruiters convince the mothers to give up their children to an "NGO [nongovernmental organization] or an orphanage who can take care of them and their babies," a Licadho report says. The women are offered $30 to $70 per child and are told that they can visit the child or take the children anytime, but are denied access to the orphanage.
"Some mothers claim they never consented that the recruiters could take their children," says Naly Pilorge, acting director of Licadho.
The problem is not just in Cambodia. In Vietnam, according to a 2000 report from the International Organization for Migration, children have been sold for up to $5,000 each. Authorities uncovered syndicates in the northern and southern parts of the country that have taken hundreds of babies from poor families since 1996.
But adoption in these countries can be more difficult than in Cambodia. "The adoption of children in Cambodia has been a relatively easy, a relatively quick process, and that has drawn a lot of people here to do that," says Kent Wiedemann, US ambassador to Cambodia. "It could take 3 to 4 times longer in neighboring countries, such as China, Thailand. As more people come [to Cambodia]," says Mr. Wiedemann, "that has unfortunately encouraged certain unscrupulous elements within Cambodian society to take advantage of the large number of people coming to, in effect, engage in baby-trafficking."
The US has offered the Cambodian government assistance in developing ways to investigate suspected child-trafficking cases to ensure that the children being adopted are indeed orphans. The US also plans to draft legislation to address the issue of child-trafficking. "There are many good orphanages here which do in fact have legitimate orphans in them, and it would be a great service to the children to be adopted by families from the US or other countries," says Mr. Wiedemann.
Government leaders have shown an interest in curbing the problem, but some worry that it might be more difficult to rein in lower-level officials who directly benefit from foreign adoptions from charging "administrative fees" to facilitating paperwork.
Observers say improving the economic situation of women is one of the best ways to fix the trafficking problem. "With some mothers, if given assistance, either financial or some skills training ... within a short period of time they could take care of their babies and wouldn't have to give them up at all," says Pilorage.
Woulfe was eventually granted "humanitarian custody," which means they have to go through the formal visa application process in the US. But more importantly, if any evidence arises in the next two years showing that these children have parents, the families have to return the children to Cambodia.
"If someone came forward and said the baby had been stolen that would change things," Woulfe said. "I could never live with myself with the thought that I took a child from a mother who wanted her as desperately as I wanted a child."