Report on illegal adoptions: Have there been thousands of other irregularities in Switzerland?
8 December 2023

A new study shows that the extent of illegal adoptions from abroad to Switzerland may be significantly greater than assumed. We are talking about forged documents and mafia-like structures in different countries of origin.

Hundreds of children were taken from their parents in Sri Lanka from the 1970s to the 1990s and placed as adoptive children in countries such as Switzerland, often using false identities. When this long-standing practice became known four years ago, it caused a wave of outrage throughout Switzerland. Now a report commissioned by the Federal Council as a result of the research shows that the scandal surrounding the adopted children from Sri Lanka may have only been the tip of the iceberg.

In several thousand other cases, irregularities may have occurred during this time, according to the report published by the Federal Council on Friday. It was written by Nadja Ramsauer, Rahel Bühler and Katja Girschik from the Institute for Childhood, Youth and Family at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW). The authors examined adoptions from ten countries in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe. Most of the children came from India, Colombia, Brazil and Korea.

Agent collects $3,000 to $5,000 for a child

In these and six other countries there is numerous evidence of illegal practices, forged documents, missing origin information and child trafficking. According to the report, it is no longer possible to determine how many adopted children are affected. However, based on the entry permits issued during this period, the authors assume that there are several thousand people affected. Irregularities and misconduct did not only occur in the countries of origin. The authorities in Switzerland and the diplomatic missions in the countries are also said to have brushed aside information.

Such information was often publicly available, as the example of an intermediary from Brazil shows. Between 1980 and 1985, this issue appeared regularly in the Brazilian media in connection with child trafficking. She is said to have charged $3,000 to $5,000 per adoption. The Federal Office of Justice took notice and asked the Swiss embassy in Brasilia based on the media reports. But the ambassador decided not to investigate further. He replied to Bern that he did not want to draw additional attention to the mediator. To this day it is unclear whether and in how many cases the woman arranged adoptions in Switzerland.

Nobody felt responsible

Another example is Peru. Around 1980, demand from couples from Switzerland increased, some of whom explicitly wanted little girls under the age of two and “de peau claire si possible” (if possible with light skin). However, there were also serious problems related to adoptions in Peru between the 1970s and the 1990s. At the time, various media outlets revealed that intermediaries, lawyers and judges were illegally enriching themselves through the adoptions and forming a kind of mafia. They sold children to Europe for several thousand dollars. There have been reports that biological parents in Peru were selling their children to avoid starvation. Nevertheless, Switzerland did not advise against adopting Peruvian children. Until 1992, adoptions were possible, although with some difficulties.

Various reasons meant that irregular adoptions often went unnoticed and uncomplained about for years, or were even indirectly supported by the authorities as a result of inaction. The various federal authorities and diplomatic missions only saw themselves as responsible for part of the processes. This made it difficult to consolidate information when irregularities occurred. The procedures were also complex and there were numerous bodies involved, the authors write.

Federal Council “regrets”

At the same time, the interests of the adoptive parents were often given greater weight than the rights of the children and parents in the countries of origin. This is also because the demand for adoptive children from abroad was high. There was also a widespread belief that the adopted children would be better off in Switzerland than in their home country - an opinion that was also shared by the future adoptive parents and the local intermediaries.

The Federal Council recognizes the irregularities in international adoptions and “regrets that the authorities have only inadequately assumed their responsibility towards the children and their families”. These failures on the part of the authorities have shaped the lives of those adopted back then to this day, he writes in a press release.

It is now the responsibility of the cantons to support those affected in their search for origin. At the same time, an independent group of experts commissioned by the federal government came to the conclusion in an interim report that a revision of international adoption law could significantly reduce the potential for abuse in the future. The Federal Council has commissioned the expert group to submit in-depth clarifications for a revision by the end of 2024.