PHNOM PENH — Cambodia has announced that it expects to resume international adoptions next year. The move, which has surprised some, comes four years after the government suspended the practice after widespread allegations that children were being trafficked.
The announcement by Nim Thoth, a senior official in the Ministry of Social Affairs, came on the sidelines of a training workshop where dozens of judges and ministry officials were gathered to discuss Cambodia's progress on implementing the 1993 Hague Adoption Convention, which outlines safeguards for international adoptions.
When it comes to international adoptions, Cambodia has had a poor track record. For many years, until 2009 when the country suspended international adoptions, local media carried numerous stories of impoverished parents being tricked into parting with their children.
Those children would be taken to local orphanages and then placed with foreign families in exchange for thousands of dollars in so-called processing fees for brokers and corrupt government officials. Frequently few background checks were carried out on people seeking to adopt.
The situation was so bad that in 2001 several countries barred their citizens from adopting children from Cambodia, among them France, the United States and the United Kingdom.
In recent years, UNICEF and The Hague Conference, or HCCH, an intergovernmental body that works to harmonize laws across national boundaries, have been helping the Cambodian government to ensure proper mechanisms are put in place.
Laura Martinez-Mora, HCCH's principal legal officer, said Cambodia has made good progress, including passing a law on international adoptions and supporting legislation. She said workers are training local authorities to ensure that children are in need of inter-country adoption, that their parents have consented.
“They have done so after being informed and counseled, and after having tried that they keep their child, so that there is information, they know what they are signing and even if they don't know how to read, they know what they are saying yes to. So that's a very important step in order to have this,” Martinez-Mora said.
A further issue is ensuring that children have a birth certificate. That's important in many countries, and not least in Cambodia where less than 40 percent of children have one.
“So we need to have essential safeguards to do inter-country adoptions as well as domestic adoptions. For example to be sure that Child A is really Child A, that there is no problem with the birth certificate. Other types of issues like this need to be in place before any adoption takes place. So these are the things Cambodia is working on now,” stated Martinez-Mora.
Under the terms of the Convention, which Cambodia has signed, signatory states are required to put the interests of the child first. To that end, the number one priority is to try and keep the child with their birth family or with their extended family.
If that cannot be done, the next step is to try to find a home within the country. Experts want Cambodia to do more to promote domestic adoption over the third and last alternative, which is international adoption.
States must also put in place safeguards to prevent the abduction, sale and trafficking of children for adoption, and must also ensure there is no corruption in the process. In Cambodia, where this week Transparency International ranked the country as one of the 20 most corrupt in the world, that remains a challenge.
When UNICEF was asked whether it believes Cambodia is ready to resume adoptions, the U.N. children's organization struck a cautious tone.
UNICEF Cambodia's deputy representative, Sun Ah Kim, said several key requirements need to be in place first. One is staff trained in the proper procedures who can ensure, for example, that children up for adoption are eligible in the first place, and that prospective parents are suitable.
Another, given the priority to place children domestically rather than abroad, is that foster care and domestic adoption are also available.
“As of now, not all these requirements are in place. The government is accountable for ensuring these essential requirements are in place to resume new applications. The resumption of adoptions should take place gradually to guarantee the proper and orderly implementation of both the International Country Adoption Law and the Hague Convention,” said Sun Ah Kim.
Figures from the Ministry of Social Affairs show 3,800 Cambodian children were adopted internationally between 1997 and 2009, which was the year Cambodia suspended adoptions. Wednesday's announcement shows Phnom Penh believes it is close to fulfilling what is needed to begin again.
But at this stage it is not clear, that countries like the United States and the United Kingdom will be satisfied with the reforms to allow their citizens to participate when the adoptions restart.