Closed adoption system helping child traffickers

This story was originally published in The Daily Star.

adoption
Newborns sleep in incubators at a hospital in Sidon. Photo courtesy Mohammed Zaatari/The Daily Star

September 9, 2013

BEIRUT: Adoption is often seen as a benevolent act. Rather than being brought up in an orphanage, a parentless child is given a home, stability and a loving family. In Lebanon, however, the closed adoption system has helped to transform the practice into something less than benign: a business. When Daniel Ibn Zayd was adopted in 1963, the details of his biological family were fabricated. “In the paperwork we have from the orphanage it lists family name, mother, father, birth date, birthplace,” he explains. “You grow up thinking that this is true.

“It was my fellow adoptees in France who enlightened me to the fact that these [were] false names … There was a kind of comfort in knowing that link was there if I needed it, and the minute it was ruptured, then I felt this need to establish that link.”

Ibn Zayd, who runs Transracialeyes, a platform for adoptees worldwide to discuss intercountry adoption, moved to Lebanon from the United States in search of his biological family 10 years ago, but in spite of contacting the orphanage from which he was adopted, he has been unable to track them down.

According to the United Nations, children separated from their parents during war or natural disasters should not be adopted. “Even if both their parents are dead,” reads UNICEF’s statement on intercountry adoption, “the chances of finding living relatives, a community and home to return to after the conflict subsides exist. Thus, such children should not be considered for intercountry adoption.”

This does not help a generation of children adopted during the Lebanese Civil War, who over the last decade have been returning in their hundreds to uncover their origins.

Adoption in Lebanon falls under the personal status code, and is governed by religious authorities. The practice is forbidden in Islam. Instead, Muslim children are usually raised together in orphanages.

“The main reason for prohibiting adoption in Islam is to prevent the adoptive family from giving their surnames to the adopted child, in order to safeguard the biological lineage,” explains a representative of the Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya, a Muslim organization that cares for orphaned children.

“The adoption ban in Islam was one of the major breaks between post-Islam and the Jahiliyyah, the pre-Islamic period,” explains Zeina Osman, who specializes in the anthropology of childhood. “Christianity allows adoption but they don’t allow cross-adoption … so you can only adopt another Christian.”

In Lebanon, where premarital sex is frowned upon and illegitimate children are often stigmatized, the paperwork does not disclose any information about the child’s birth family. This is ostensibly a way to protect the biological mother, who is not legally obliged to recognize the child or sign the birth certificate.

The practice of falsifying or omitting names from adoption documents not only makes it almost impossible for adoptees to trace their biological families, it also facilitates the illegal trafficking of babies out of the country, says lawyer Youmna Makhlouf.

Makhlouf explains that trafficked children often have no papers at all. “We have people now who are coming back and asking about their origins and sometimes … you don’t find their papers,” she says.

“[This] means that the child was trafficked, because if [not] he would have been registered.”

Child trafficking was common practice during the Civil War.

“Things were much less regulated then,” Osman explains. “You had a huge orphan trade happening. A lot of people would come – from Europe mainly – to try to get children and they had very famous people that would try to broker adoption.

She adds: “For a lot of [these adoptees] it’s impossible to find records of who their parents are.”

There are two practices that constitute trafficking under Lebanese law, Makhlouf explains.

In one, the child is smuggled out of the country under the guise of being the adoptive parents’ biological child, and registered abroad. Another form of trafficking is when the legal process is adhered to, and the child’s papers applied for, but money changes hands, meaning that someone makes a profit from the adoption process.

A law introduced in 1993 criminalized child trafficking, making accepting money to facilitate adoption punishable by imprisonment.

“We have this article, but is it really being put into action?” Makhlouf asks. “We know that Lebanon has a high number of child trafficking [cases], but we don’t see any action within the criminal system penalizing the people that are committing this act.”

Nina was adopted by Dutch parents in 1983, at the height of the war.

“They knew this Lebanese woman who served as an adopting agency,” she explains. “She was like the mediator. There was no official agency except for her and her husband, who was a Protestant reverend … Her story is that doctors would come to her because they knew that she was finding families for children.”

“The adoption thing gave me a lot of issues in life,” adds Nina, who grew up in the Netherlands. “I love my parents, my family is amazing, but I always felt out of place … it made me very insecure, because I didn’t really know where I was from.”

Nina moved to Beirut for work three years ago. She decided to try and trace her biological family, but the Armenian Evangelical church that processed her adoption has since closed down. Her papers – a health certificate from the American University of Beirut’s Medical Center, a document from the church and a Lebanese baby passport – only have the names of her adoptive parents.

Nina’s parents say that while the process of getting approved for adoption in the Netherlands was complicated, the formalities in Lebanon were relatively simple. The process of adopting their two sons, in 1978 and 1979, took less than a week each time, they explain, although when they adopted Nina it took three weeks for her passport to be issued.

Certain paperwork was required, such as signed and authenticated statements confirming the adoptive parents were members of the church, did not have any children of their own and had enough money to raise a baby. But Nina’s father says no one checked the content of the papers, just the signatures needed to make them official.

Prior to each trip they were contacted by the broker, who told them whether the child up for adoption was a boy or a girl and the age. This was the only information they ever received.

In spite of the hurdles, some Lebanese adoptees have succeeded in reconnecting with their biological families. Dida Guigan, one of five Lebanese children adopted by a Swiss couple during the war, spent 10 years in search of her biological mother.

She finally found her after appearing on Lebanese TV, only to discover that she had been living in Switzerland all along. She had been taken there for psychological treatment, Guigan explains, after attempting suicide when, as an unmarried mother, she was forced to give her baby up for adoption.

Today the process is more rigorous, says Osman, but adoptions are still closed, denying children the right to basic information such as their ethnic and religious background, their exact date of birth and their medical history.

Nowadays, just three religious institutions are licensed by the state to carry out adoptions. In spite of this, illegal adoption still takes place.

“It wasn’t only something that happened during the war, it’s still happening,” says Zeina Allouche, who has worked with children’s organizations for 25 years. “We hear that intercountry adoptions from Lebanon cost $75,000.”

She emphasizes that adoptive parents are often unaware they are involved in human trafficking, as they believe money they hand over is going toward the biological mother’s medical bills or to support the orphanage.

Due to the stigma surrounding adoption, many Lebanese families who adopt pretend that the child is their own.

“Of course you have secret adoption,” Osman says. “I know that even Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya do this with people they know. It’s very secretive of course … [but] if you have enough wasta [connections] you can go through this whole process of acting like you got pregnant and gave birth and this child is actually yours.

She says the two people she knows that have been adopted are officially known as their parents’ children.

Allouche says she has also heard rumors that even Muslim children are sometimes adopted.

“In Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya they have invented a new way to do adoption and it costs only $10,000,” she says. “Muslims are cheaper than Christians.”

The Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya did not respond to a question about the adoption of children under their care.

“In very rare cases,” said a spokesperson, “the organization may allow orphans to be fostered by trusted families.”

“This procedure is called “ilhak” [joining], provided that the child will be monitored and followed up continuously by the organization. In return, the fostering family will provide the child with financial support, education [and] love.”

Makhlouf stresses that were a full adoption to take place, as Osman and Allouche claim, it would violate Lebanese law.

In spite of the fact that Christians can legally adopt via the church, some Christian adoptive parents also opt to pretend that the child is biologically theirs, an act which Makhlouf says constitutes fraud.

The director of a Beirut-based Christian charity organization, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Star he helped to facilitate the adoption of a baby girl by checking the pregnant mother into a small mountain hospital under the name of the adoptive mother. This meant her name appeared on the paperwork in place of the birth mother’s name.

“It was very easy,” he says.

A question about the child’s religious background is met with a long silence. “Look,” he eventually replies, “I didn’t wish to know.”

He says this arrangement was the easiest way to get the papers.

“The nuns are allowed to make the papers, but it will take one year to get the ID,” he says.

A doctor at the hospital gave them the required papers, he explains, and the couple – who are Lebanese expatriates – are now going through the process of registering the baby as their own, which they must do before leaving the country with the child.

“You cannot register a child as being your biological child,” Makhlouf says. “There are criminal texts against this … It is a legal issue but I think that people just close their eyes.

“Usually when you talk to people who do this, they will tell you ‘It’s in the best interests of the child – what are we doing wrong?’ They don’t see that this child is going to have psychological problems afterward.”

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