Children up for sale (The Sunday Times, 23 août 2009)
La traite d'enfants est en augmentation, avec des adoptions illégales, les transactions commerciales impliquant des enfants, et le recrutement d'enfants pour le travail est répandu.
In the maternity ward of the Mahamodera hospital, Galle, a 22-year-old mother is sobbing uncontrollably, a four-day-old infant in her arms. The mother has been abandoned by her husband, and her own mother has refused to give shelter to mother and child. Fearing she will not be able to support the baby, the mother had agreed to give away her child and is now facing police action.
Earlier, the young mother had been approached by a woman, accompanied by two hospital employees, with an an offer of Rs. 1,000 and a promise to take good care of the child. The mother agreed, realising that this would be the best arrangement for the child. On hearing that her daughter had sold her baby, the young mother’s mother informed the police.
Meanwhile, in Chilaw, two drunken men were arrested while arguing in the street over the sale of an 18-month baby. The men, one from Gampaha and the other from Negombo, were caught in the act of trying to sell the baby for Rs. 10,000.
These are just two instances in a string of cases of child trafficking reported to the police over the past few days.
“The big problem with child labour and child trafficking is that it is hidden and invisible, although the problem is widespread,” says Jagath Wellawatte, chairman of the National Child Protection Authority. “The National Child Protection Authority is cracking down hard on persons involved in child trafficking. We are aware of a rapid increase in the number of illegal adoptions, sale of children, and recruitment of child labour.”
In 2007, a total of 324 cases of violations of children’s rights were reported. The number more than doubled in 2008 to 760 cases. Between January and March this year 255 such cases have been reported.
According to Mr. Wellawatte, the reported cases represented only a fraction of the number of suspected child rights violations occurring around the country.
“Most of the illegal adoptions take place in nursing homes and the maternity wards of hospitals,” he said. “And most of the adoptions take place with the connivance of hospital employees. Single unmarried mothers are prime targets. They are approached as soon as they get admitted to hospital.”
Mr. Wellawatte said the National Child Protection Authority and other child help organisations are asking the management of hospitals and nursing homes to be extra alert and watchful of employees suspected of engaging in child smuggling and child switching.
He said the majority of the willing or unwilling victims of child smuggling were mothers 25 years and under. Those highest on the list of mothers who gave away their infants were overseas-based domestic helpers who had come to Sri Lanka to have their babies; young women living away from home, especially those employed in the trade zones, and sex workers.
“Most of the child traffickers get away, while the mothers end up behind bars. If we can bust the child trafficking racket, the number of such cases will definitely drop,” he said.
Mr. Wellawatte observed that Sri Lanka was lacking in rehabilitation centres for mothers who were victims of child trafficking. He also said that parents who wanted to put their children up for adoption had to join a long waiting list. “The legal adoption process can take up to two or three years,” he said. “It should be a much more speedy process than that.”
According to Mr. Wellawatte, children adopted from low-income backgrounds often ended up as child labour, with the direct involvement of middlemen or child brokers.
“We are aware that certain houses in urban areas have child labourers as young as eight years and even younger. Most of these children are from the estates. Some of them do not even have birth certificates. Some get a monthly pay of about Rs. 2,000, while others get nothing.”
Mr. Wellawatte believes there are about 40,000 children being used for labour in Sri Lanka.
He said many children from the North, especially Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, have been sold illegally to families in European countries, and that these children were first taken to Singapore and Malaysia. “There was a case of 10 boys who had been smuggled out of the country but we were not able to trace the traffickers,” he said.
Young girls from the Eastern province, especially Trincomalee and Batticaloa, were sent to Middle East countries as housemaids with forged documents prepared by child brokers.
The National Child Protection Authority and other child welfare organisations, assisted by the police and volunteers, are investigating leads to those engaged in child trafficking.