A retired justice ministry officer in Laos has been hauled up for questioning after he “adopted” newborn babies from hospitals and poor rural households and allegedly sold them—mostly to Americans, Canadians, and Australians, according to government officials.
The officer, who obtained adoption papers from the justice and foreign affairs ministries for babies that had been taken away from their parents, is accused of selling the infants—all one to two years old—for U.S. $1,500 to $5,000 each.
“What he did for adoption was legal, but selling babies was [illegal],” a Lao national security official investigating the case told RFA, saying the retired officer had been taken in for interrogations.
“He is the one who goes around hospitals and poor rural homes to locate unwanted babies and takes them to be sold later,” the official said.
It is not know how many babies have been linked to the trade but Laos has gained notoriety in recent years for human trafficking.
It is a source and a transit and destination country for women and girls subjected to sex trafficking, as well as for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor, according to a U.S. State Department report.
The Lao national security ministry has forwarded a report on the investigations over the babies-for-sale scam to the ministries of justice and foreign affairs, requesting them to suspend the issuance of adoption papers for babies on the suspect list, officials said.
The adoption papers will be issued only to immediate families who want to take charge of the babies, they said.
A justice ministry official said it is investigating whether the babies had actually been sold, which can constitute a human trafficking offense punishable by a three-to-five-year imprisonment.
“We are going to look into the [economic] situation of the parents to assess their need to give up the child,” the official said.
“Adopting a child for sale later is a crime, related to human trafficking, no question about it,” the official said. “We cannot say anything before the investigation is over.”
The official confirmed that the retired officer is “familiar” with most of the ministry’s employees and that he often applied for adoption and naturalization papers.
No specific law
Laos has no specific law to check human trafficking, officials have said.
This “loophole” allows human traffickers to pose as “adopted parents,” making it difficult for enforcement officials to distinguish them from “genuine adopted parents,” an anti-human trafficking official in Vientiane said recently.
It also makes it difficult to indict traffickers, the official said.
At present, Laos uses the criminal code to deal with the human trafficking problem.
According to the U.S. State Department’s 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, court proceedings of human trafficking cases in Laos “lacked due process and transparency.”
International groups and non-governmental organizations have also been unable to verify data provided by the Lao government, the report said.
The government did not report prosecuting any cases of internal trafficking, while the impunity of corrupt government officials remained a problem throughout the Lao justice system, it said.
The report also highlighted corruption, which it said is “endemic” in Laos.
Observers of trafficking in Laos believe that some public officials—particularly at local levels—are involved in facilitating human trafficking, sometimes in collusion with counterparts in neighboring Thailand, the report said.
“Nevertheless, the government has never reported any officials investigated, prosecuted, or punished for involvement in trafficking in persons.”
The Lao National Assembly approved a National Plan of Action on human trafficking in 2007 but it has not been endorsed by the prime minister’s office.
Reported by Apichart Sopapong for RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot and Max Avary. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.