Child Trafficking: Hidden Danger of the Earthquake in Syria and Turkey

zeina alloush

Wars, natural disasters and economic downturns have historically exposed children to the danger of trafficking and illegal adoption. The aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria is no exception. Security agencies have warned against gangs attempting to kidnap unaccompanied children.

With every major tragedy child trafficking rings become active to facilitate the unauthorized adoption of children. Aiming for a quick transfer of children from the devastated areas to northern countries, where there is a growing demand for adopting children, these networks generally carry out their illegal activities under the guise of charitable or rescue work, using images of surviving infants circulating in (social) media as coordinates.

Covering the earthquake in Kahramanmaraş, journalist Maha Hoteit asked one of the rescue workers if the crowds were in danger, as they gathered so closely to the destroyed buildings. Yes, there was a risk, he replied, yet parents and relatives refuse to leave, as they fear their children may be kidnapped. Security agencies in Turkey and Syria have issued warnings about gangs attempting to kidnap unaccompanied children.

According to Turkish media reports, the Ankara government has relocated numerous infants found without parents to Istanbul. They were placed in the care of a state institution. So far, official sources have mentioned 21 newborns, but this number may only be the tip of the iceberg. 

There is no information from the Syrian side, a more favorable environment for human traffickers to operate, given the lack of security and oversight. Meanwhile, there is a desire and demand among people to adopt children, which opens the doors to a free market with few ethical boundaries to control it. 

Wars, catastrophes, epidemics, and economic downturns have historically exposed children to the danger of trafficking and illegal adoption. In his 2012 article “International Adoption after Haiti: Salvaging or Kidnapping?” researcher Peter Salman challenged the notion of facilitating adoption as a child-saving measure. 

Ten Americans in Haiti

In 2010, children were flown for adoption to numerous countries, including Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Yet, people were still working to clear the rubble caused by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake and it was later discovered that many of the children’s parents were still looking for them.

At the time, ten American nationals were detained by the Haitian authorities when it was discovered they attempted to kidnap 33 children as part of an illegal adoption operation. Taking advantage of the chaos in Haiti, and the open borders to enable the passage of aid, one of the suspects, who claimed to be in charge of a charity named New Life Children’s Shelter, said they did nothing improper by smuggling children by car across the border. The authorities claimed the group lacked the required documents to facilitate the adoption of 33 Haitian children, who ranged in age from two months to twelve years.

After a huge tsunami struck Southeast Asia and the eastern coast of Africa in 2004, a great number of volunteers and aid organizations from around the world came to the rescue. It was a devastating disaster that killed more than 170,000 people and left 1.5 million people homeless. Numerous children were unlawfully moved for the purpose of adoption, while it soon became apparent that many parents were still looking for their missing children.

International reports confirm that the 2003 earthquake in Iran and the numerous wars and armed conflicts that took place across the world share a link with this same phenomenon. The fact that over 10,000 children were unlawfully adopted during the Lebanese Civil War, in a coordinated effort involving lawyers, doctors, hospitals, and mayors, which resulted in the falsification of ID’s and travel documents, must be mentioned.

Doomed To Fail

Research has shown that 60% of international adoption cases are doomed to fail, which is evidenced by the fact that many adopted children are handed over to institutions in the country of adoption. Yet, adoption networks exploit a state of security breakdown and administrative chaos, supported by the popular view that adopting a child means saving a child.

Sadly, times of turmoil and damaged infrastructures in terms of health, education, water and communication, following emergencies, especially those caused by natural disaster or armed conflict, give alleged rescuers a perfect opportunity to traffick children for adoption. 

Such circumstances make it much harder for governments to control the problem, and as a result the threat to a child’s first line of protection has grown significantly. Children, who are unaccompanied or apart from their primary caregivers, are more vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation. The fact that some of the people who assist in adoption also work in the rescue industry is simply terrifying.

Regarding the tragedy currently unfolding in Turkey and Syria, there are numerous signs that child trafficking organizations are becoming more active. People frequently express their willingness to adopt children and spend significant sums of money to do so on social media. Many of them may be honest and truly willing to help, but unfortunately there are also people unfit to care for children, looking for opportunities to make money or even sexual exploitation. 

Specialized studies confirm there are serious concerns linked to international adoption and child trafficking. Many families using such unlawful practices are regarded unsuitable for adoption in their own countries. To adopt children from countries plagued by natural disaster, conflict or corruption, they turn to the so-called adoption agencies. 

Most cases of international adoption are unlawful, according to numerous international studies and reports. In fact they are frequently considered child trafficking in the country of origin. Yet, as soon as the adopted child enters the country of adoption, the path becomes legitimate.

There are many issues with international organizations concerned with child protection that need to be raised. Why not create intervention tactics for emergencies to protect children from the increased risks? Why this absence, as if it is the first disaster to take pace? The millions of dollars allegedly spent on emergency protection policies are nowhere to be found.

How can “the North,” which likes to pride itself as human rights protector, permit the legalization of international adoption, when they know that the path taking children out of their country of origin is strife with illicit activities such as kidnapping, smuggling, and forgery? 

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