Bucharest Tackles 'Child Trafficking' Image

Romania has extended its ban on international adoptions until its childcare system is cleaned up.

Bucharest Tackles 'Child Trafficking' Image

Romania has extended its ban on international adoptions until its childcare system is cleaned up.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

I met three-year-old Alexandru one afternoon in the back yard of a large orphanage in Bucharest. The moment he saw me, he stopped running around with the other children and raced over. We had never met, but he hugged me long and hard, staring up with his big, brown eyes. "He is hoping you will take him home with you," said one of the careworkers. "He has no chance of being adopted, you see. He is of Roma origin."

Alexandru is one of the 48,000 children, who according to last year's figures, live in institutions across Romania. His mother abandoned him in the maternity ward and his father is unknown. After some months, he was moved to the orphanage where he now lives with 256 other children.

In the past, a child like Alexandru might have expected to be adopted by a foreigner - over 30,000 international adoptions have taken place since the fall of Ceaucescu. "We used to have American, French and German couples who would come here and choose a child for adoption, but the legislators have stopped that for the moment," said the careworker, who preferred not to be named.

Two years ago, worldwide criticism of Romania's adoption procedures prompted a ban on the practice. Due to expire in February, the Romanian senate then extended the ban until June. "This is an issue of morality and credibility," said Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. "International adoptions were put on hold because you cannot fix a car with the engine is running. We had to switch the engine off."

Two years ago, a report by Baroness Emma Nicholson, the EU parliamentary envoy on Romanian issues, described a "profitable trade in child trafficking" in Romania. Alleging a "systematic and organised violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child", she began pressuring for a halt to international adoptions. Jonathan Scheele, the EU representative in Bucharest, has said that bribes of up to 50,000 US dollars per child were being paid to officials to speed up the process.

Alexandru suffers the extra disadvantage of Roma origin in a country where prejudice against the minority is rife, but while the ban is in place, few of the children have a serious chance of adoption. "Romanians are too poor to have their own children, let alone take in a stranger," said the careworker. She listed the health problems the children suffer from: attention deficit, arrested development, malnutrition. Running around the yard, it is clear they have little concept of how to play, hitting each other on the head and throwing themselves against the walls.

Scheele said the government has asked for EU assistance on drafting legislation, which will comply with union standards. Meanwhile, about 100 US families recently lobbied American senators to pressure Bucharest into lifting the current ban, by voting against Romania's entry to NATO.

Lori Scott, from New York City, adopted her daughter Maria in 1998. Maria was four and suffering from malnutrition and emotional problems, when Lori found her in an orphanage in Botosani, northern Romania. "My daughter has grown and matured so much. Her English is perfect now thanks to some speech therapy, she is attending an ordinary school and I am so proud of all her achievements," she said.

When Alexandru realises I am not planning to take him home, he starts to cry and pull at my skirt desperately. The careworker says the authorities keep a close watch on the orphanages to prevent illegal adoptions. "I don't want any problems. The police were here a few weeks ago, after a child disappeared. They don't know what happened to her, she was only five. I've read in the papers that some children get sold abroad, but she may have just run away," she said.

Prime Minister Nastase has said that the adoption ban will prevent Romanian children from becoming a "commodity". But the alternative for orphanage children is depressing to say the least. In all probability, many will end up on the street, begging or falling into crime.

Daniela Tuchel works for the Bucharest-based newspaper Libertatea.

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