By Helen Clark
HANOI, May 23 (IPS) - While Vietnam has stopped its adoption agreement with the United States in reaction to an embassy report alleging corruption, baby selling and forced relinquishment by birth mothers, the question of abandoned children remains unaddressed.
Vietnam’s stopping of U.S. adoptions after July puts an abrupt end to a rising trend which saw 1,200 Vietnamese children being adopted in the 18 months before Mar. 31. In 2007, 828 Vietnamese children were adopted, representing a 400 percent rise over 2006, according to official figures.
The U.S. embassy report, released late April, said 85 percent of infants adopted were listed as ‘abandoned’. Prior to 2002 (when the U.S. suspended adoptions due to fears of corruption before resumption in 2006) only 20 percent of cases were listed as such.
Fraudulent cases cited in the report included that of a grandmother who gave up her grandchild whilst her daughter-in-law was working in another province and a child being taken by a hospital when the mother could not pay pending bills.
According to the embassy report fraud originated from Vietnamese laws that require foreign adoption service agents to fund Vietnamese orphanages before dealing with them.
Meanwhile, although accurate figures are hard to come by, babies continue to be routinely abandoned in Vietnam because out-of-wedlock pregnancies are socially frowned upon.
"The availability of data is still very weak," Caroline den Dulk, United Nations spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told IPS.
UNICEF works with the ministry of labour, war invalids and social affairs (MOLISA) and the ministry of justice in areas of policy and legislative changes regarding orphanages and abandoned children. "What’s needed is a better data system,’’ den Dulk said.
As with many unfortunate situations, individual cases capture hearts before the nameless many. In April, local newspapers ran the story of Phung Thien Nhan, abandoned at birth on a hillside outside his impoverished village. The 21-month-old lost his right leg and genitals to a wild animal attack before being found and taken to a hospital on the back of a motorbike.
People came to visit the miracle survivor, bringing gifts and sometimes their children. After two months of care he was returned to his family’s dirt floored house, where he became malnourished and faced further medical complications without adequate care.
Adopted by Vietnamese journalist Tran Mai Anh and her family, the child was once again in the news thanks to a sustained foreign media campaign by her friend, Elke Ray, a writer from Canada. People regularly visit the house with gifts, and also bring their children to play with him. "People compare him with their children of the same age. They feel great emotion because of this," said Mai Anh when asked why his particular case attracted such attention.
"I think it was because of the extent of his injuries (that he was paid so much attention)," Ray said. "Babies do get abandoned here all the time. People are reluctant to talk about it... it’s not nice to think about." She sees this situation as a result of widespread condemnation of unwed mothers in Vietnam and few services designed to help them. "The women who are dumping these babies are usually really poor."
Paul Philips, chief of Charity Tuesday, which provides food, medicines and transport to privately-run orphanages (known as ‘love houses’), concurs with Ray. "Traditional values still dominate in many parts of the country. That’s where most abandonments would come from. It’s absolute desperation. They don’t have anywhere else to turn, they can’t get social assistance."
On Apr. 8, the ‘Thanh Ninen’ daily ran a story on the ‘The Abandoned Children’s Mass Grave’, located in central Thua Thien-Hue province. The two men profiled in the story estimated that they have buried some 30,000 unwanted infants in their 16 years of harrowing, but voluntary work.
Trong Viet Hieu told the daily that he began his work after finding the corpse of an infant in a plastic bin in 1992. When interviewed, he and his friend, Truong Van Nang, had just dug 40 fresh graves in preparation for the coming week.
"I just don’t understand that. It’s so hard to read," says Leah Fitzgerald, an Australian charity worker who has lived in Vietnam for nearly ten years. For the past 14 months she has been trying to adopt a Vietnamese child, but because Australia has no adoption agreement with Vietnam she cannot go through an adoption agency.
"They’re (ministry of justice) just not interested," she told IPS. "There’s no bigger benefit. I’m only one person." She said she was repeatedly told that there were no children available and was recommended to "come to an arrangement" with a family herself, and then file the relevant papers.
However, people are hopeful that things will improve. "If you follow the media there is an increase in reporting on this, there is some public concern," said den Dulk.