LONDON/LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A crackdown on international adoptions by the Democratic Republic of Congo has spurred a black market in child smuggling, with Americans paying to get dozens of infants out across its jungle borders, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has found.
More than 80 Congolese children have been taken illegally out of the country in the past two years, testimony shows, with adoptive parents paying networks of local brokers.
Concerns over child smuggling emerged after President Joseph Kabila suspended exit permits for adopted children from the central African nation in September 2013, causing uncertainty for hundreds of children assigned to foreign families.
The Congolese authorities said the decision was taken due to concerns and investigations over child abuse in U.S. households, but campaigners say the move has created a lucrative trade in which children are smuggled across borders for a price.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department issued its most strongly worded public comment on the subject, warning U.S. adoptive families that “attempting to circumvent the exit permit suspension could have severe implications”.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department would not comment on the record on why the alert had been issued but one government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it followed tip-offs that more people were finding ways to circumvent the ban.
For while both France and Italy halted issuing entry visas to adopted DRC children at the time of the Congolese suspension of exit visas, the United States continues to do so.
“Adoptions in DRC have become a business for government agents, judges, lawyers, representatives of adoption agencies and orphanages,” said one person in Kinshasa who is familiar with the process and speaking anonymously for security reasons.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation made repeated attempts by phone and email to reach the Ministry of Interior’s migration department that polices DRC’s borders but received no response.
“I am not in a position to talk about figures,” said Lambert Mendé, spokesman for the Congolese government in Kinshasa, adding that any application for permission to expatriate an adopted child would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The DRC, with a population of about 68 million, is home to over four million of Africa’s orphaned children, according to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.
U.S. State Department figures show DRC was one of the most common countries for international adoption by U.S. parents alongside China, Ethiopia, and Ukraine.
Between 2010 and 2013, the U.S. Department of State reported that adoptions from the DRC by its citizens rose 645 percent.
But the system hit a roadblock two years ago with the suspension of exit permits.
Many adoptive parents saw the ban as a ruse to extort money from them with corruption widespread in DRC which emerged from a five-year war in 2003.
About 1,000 adoptive families, nearly half of them American, are waiting for the suspension to be lifted, with many of these paying childcare for children they have adopted in the meantime.
Two waiting parents told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they would never resort to smuggling their child and fear publicity about it could jeopardise their chances of seeing their children leave the country legally.
“I don’t think there is legitimate reason to say we have to rescue these children (from DRC) because of bribery and corruption. I don’t think that is necessarily true,” said Holly Mulford, spokeswoman for U.S. campaign group Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR).
But other Americans say they are forced to choose between grappling with opaque bureaucracy and smuggling to bring their child to a safe home.
United Nations data shows DRC has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, with 129.8 deaths in every 1,000 children under five.
“We personally had a child die (of illness) in the process of adopting. So it’s just a maddening process. It’s very painful,” said one U.S. adoptive parent, speaking on condition of anonymity, after smuggling a second child out of DRC.
Once out of DRC, the smuggled children are reunited with adoptive parents in Rwanda, Ethiopia or Zambia, those familiar with the practise say, before going to their U.S. homes.
SMUGGLED ACROSS BORDERS
Official sources working close to DRC’s borders said adopted children who cross into neighbouring countries may be assisted by locals who are well connected on both sides.
“People living either side of the DRC-Zambia border with dual nationality and who speak the local dialects can cross easily, claiming the children as their own,” said one border officer in Lubumbashi, a mining town in southeast DRC.
Conflict and civil unrest also play a part. Adopted children are also believed to have been smuggled across from DRC’s North Kivu province, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, where they can pose as one of thousands of refugees, the officer said.
“If the children travel through an official border the adult who accompanies them needs to have paperwork, but in its absence a bit of money in an envelope does the trick,” he said.
The cost of transit of children can vary from $50 to $1,500 according to the level of risk and available funds, sources say.
The issue of child smuggling was brought to the attention of the U.S. government a year ago, according to Mulford.
But U.S. authorities have not stopped working through a backlog of applications for adoptions in Kinshasa, despite the Congolese suspension of exit visas for adopted children.
“We are still processing petitions for children from the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Daniel Cosgrove, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), referring to the process by which a child is registered as an orphan and declared eligible for adoption.
Occasionally adopted children are stopped.
U.S. officials said they were aware of 11 cases in the last two years in which Congolese children with U.S. visas but no Congolese exit visa were caught trying to leave the country.
Last year DRC radio network Radio Okapi reported one U.S. citizen and three other people were implicated in a child trafficking scandal in DRC after trying to smuggle seven children for adoption. No more details were available.
Neither the State Department nor the USCIS nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded to requests for the number of Congolese children who entered the United States in 2014, but 200 received U.S. visas that year from the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, official data show.
But only 51 exit permits were granted by the Congolese authorities in the same period, U.S. officials told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Photographic evidence from adoptive parents’ social media accounts, including Facebook and Twitter, reveal 83 children were brought to the United States after the suspension, in addition to 14 granted permission to leave on medical grounds.
One mother who adopted from DRC before the suspension came into force said she was aware of more than 80 children brought out of DRC since the suspension, adding the real number was likely to exceed 150 but this was hard to prove.
By contrast, illegal exit is not an option for about 650 children adopted by parents from European countries, such as France and Italy, because their governments stopped issuing entry visas.
A Belgian government official said 10 of its citizens were waiting to finalise an adoption in DRC and that 7 had managed to leave with adopted children in May 2014.
The DRC government has not flagged an end to the suspension.
But François Balumuene, DRC ambassador to the United States, said recently the matter was under review and he had met both U.S. parents and their representatives in Congress to try to complete this process “as soon as possible”.
“Our goal is to ensure that all adoptions comply with domestic and international laws and that our children receive the best care and love when they leave the country,” said Balumuene in a statement issued last week.
But U.S. adoptive parents, many of them evangelical Christians, have become sceptical the government would keep its promise and fear children are vulnerable if left in DRC.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation attempted to reach those who posted pictures of their adopted Congolese children on Facebook since returning home to the United States.
Two adoptive mothers who decided to take the illegal route with their children shared their story, but would not go public.
“We had no choice but to focus on our son and plead for his release and pray for God’s protection,” said one mother in emailed comments.
But adoption reform campaigners want to see an immediate end to U.S. visas granted to Congolese children.
“The Department of State has exacerbated this situation through its policy of continuing to issue visas to adopted Congolese children despite the ongoing suspension of exit permits,” said U.S. campaign group PEAR in a statement.