Swiss authorities looked the other way for decades

8 December 2023

According to a study, the problem of unlawful adoptions in recent decades is far greater than previously known. Thousands of children are likely to be affected.

Celin Fässler was adopted from Sri Lanka. Today she advises adoptees who are looking for their birth parents.

The investigations into adoptions from Sri Lanka got the ball rolling. Three years ago it emerged that many children from Sri Lanka had been illegally adopted. Now it is clear: Sri Lanka is not an isolated case. Children who had been bought or taken away from their parents were also adopted from other countries. This is shown by a report from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) commissioned by the federal government. 

What are the key findings of the new report?

The researchers searched the Federal Archives for documents from the 1970s to the 1990s from ten countries of origin: Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, India, Colombia, Korea, Lebanon, Peru and Romania. They come to the conclusion that there is also numerous evidence of illegal practices, child trafficking, forged documents and missing origin information for these countries.

How many children were unlawfully adopted?

That is unknown. However, based on the entry permits, the researchers assume that several thousand children were unlawfully adopted during the period examined. The report is a basis for further research, says Nadja Ramsauer from the ZHAW. In order to find out whether children whose adoption documents lack the consent of their birth parents were taken away from them, each individual case must be examined. What is clear, however, is that there are many incomplete documents - and that the Swiss authorities had indications of illegal practices.

What evidence of illegal practices did the authorities have?

According to the report, Swiss embassies, for example, sent newspaper articles about child trafficking to Bern. An article from 1987 reported on the conviction of a Brazilian lawyer who was said to have illegally placed children with adoptive parents for years, including in Switzerland. He received $8,000 for each child. Document forgery was also known. As early as 1970, the vice-consul in Rio de Janeiro requested a statement from Bern regarding forged birth certificates. The authorities in Bern responded to reports of this kind by saying that checking these documents was not the responsibility of the Swiss embassies.

Why didn't the authorities do anything back then?

One reason for this is that many authorities were involved, but none felt responsible. The adoption process was fragmented, says Michael Schöll, director of the Federal Office of Justice. The social climate also played a role. The consensus at the time was that the children had a better life in Switzerland, says Nadja Ramsauer. This is also shown by the response of the Swiss embassy in Chile to a request from those wishing to adopt. The embassy wrote: “It is currently very difficult to adopt small, healthy children from Chile. (...) However, we always try very hard to examine new possibilities, because there will always be children who need a mother and a father. We want to help these children, because every child on our planet has the right to a humane existence and to parental love!” 


Did the adoptive parents know?

In some cases, adoptive parents were involved in illegal activities such as document forgery; in others, they were naïve or deceived. In India, for example, a Catholic nun from Switzerland placed Indian children for adoption. In 1981, when transferring guardianship of an Indian baby to a Swiss couple, she said the baby had been abandoned outside her home. It later emerged that the child had been taken away from the mother through deception. The foster father was astonished. He agreed to the return of the child, but wanted the trusted lawyer at the Swiss embassy in Delhi to “bring another child of about the same age” on his next trip to Switzerland.

How is the Federal Council reacting to the new findings?

The Federal Council expresses its regret. And he wants to make sure that something like this can't happen again. Even if the risks are now smaller thanks to international agreements, he is planning to revise the legislation on foreign adoptions. A group of experts is expected to clarify the options in more detail by the end of 2024. In an interim report, the experts suggest two options: Either Switzerland should restrict the possibility of adoptions from abroad or ban them completely. No country has yet imposed a ban.

Who can adoptees contact when looking for their birth parents?

The cantons are responsible for supporting those affected in finding their origin. In every canton there is a “Central Adoption Authority” that those affected can contact. There are also private organizations that advise and support adoptees. The organization “Back to the Roots” specifically supports people from Sri Lanka with funds from the federal government and cantons. However, it now also offers telephone advice – without financial support – to people from other countries (Wednesday 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., 076 373 7923, Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., 077 477 0202). 

What are organizations of those affected demanding?

The organization “Back to the Roots” writes that behind the numbers there are countless fates. She would not just like to see regret from the Federal Council, but an apology, says spokeswoman Celin Fässler. “It makes a difference for those affected.” Fässler knows this from her own experience: She was adopted from Sri Lanka - and, like many others, has not yet been able to clarify her origins. This year the organization was only able to support one family reunion. 70 people are currently receiving counseling and others are on the waiting list. It's not just about finding your family of origin, says Fässler. “The most important thing is to deal with the situation.” Many of those affected would prefer not to contact the authorities because they are, in a sense, the source of the problem.

Several organizations - including the Swiss Red Cross - have issued a joint statement calling for a comprehensive historical review and an analysis of current adoption practices. They are also calling on the authorities to provide more support to those affected and to consider a moratorium on foreign adoptions. There are still indications of illegal practices today.