The murky world of foreign child adoption in Africa
Four Croatian couples are on trial in Zambia for attempted child trafficking after authorities found their adoption papers to be fake. The case has put a spotlight on foreign child adoption in Africa.
It should have been a dream come true for Damir M and his wife, Nadica; Subosic Z and his wife, Azra; Ladislav P and his wife, Aleksandr; and Noah K and his wife, Ivona. The four Croatian couples had finally adopted their children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or so they believed.
But before they could board their flight to Croatia, Zambian authorities detained the four couples, claiming the children’s adoption papers were falsified. Now, all eight face child trafficking charges.
The Croatians have spent at least a month in detention since December 2020, and were only recently granted bail by a Zambian court.
DW reached out to the Zambian Immigration Department; the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services, which currently has custody of the children; and the Congolese embassy. However, none were willing to comment on the case.
Tracking Nigeria’s human traffickers
DW reporters, Jan-Philipp Scholz and Adrian Kriesch, follow the dangerous journey of human traffickers from Nigeria to Italy. They discover how young Nigerian women end up on Italian streets as sex slaves.
Our investigation began in Benin City, capital of Edo State. Almost everyone we spoke to has at least a friend or a family member in Europe. More than three-quarters of illegal prostitutes in Italy are from this region. Due to high unemployment among the youths in Edo state, many young women see fewer prospects here. They seek for a better life in Europe instead, not fully aware of the dangers.
Catholic Sister, Bibiana Emenaha, has tried for years to warn young Nigerian women before they ended up in Europe. “Many are lured with false promises,” she told us. The traffickers promise jobs such as babysitting or hair dressing, but that quickly turn out to be a lie. Once the young women are in Europe, they end up on the streets.
Image: DW/A. Kriesch/J.-P. Scholz
“The people are greedy”
After long negotiations, a trafficker agreed to an interview with us. He called himself Steve and claimed he has already transported more than 100 Nigerians all the way to Libya. He wouldn’t speak about the people behind his business. He said he was simply a service provider. “The people here in Edo State are greedy. They are willing to do anything for a better life,” Steve said.
Dangerous Sahara journey
For 600 euros ($666) per person, Steve organizes the journey from Nigeria to Libya. “Most people know how dangerous the journey is through the Sahara,” the human smuggler told us. Many people die very often along the way. “That is the risk,” Steve said, who brings the migrants personally to Agadez in Niger. A colleague then takes over from there.
Agadez: A hub for human traffickers
The desert town of Agadez was the most dangerous part of our research trip. The town thrives on human and drug trafficking and foreigners are often kidnapped for ransom. We could only move around with armed guards and had to wear traditional head cover to be less visible.
Solving the migration crisis
Like many others in the desert town, Omar Ibrahim Omar, the Sultan of Agadez, sees human trafficking as a problem that cannot be solved in Agadez. He is asking for more money from the international community. His argument: If Europe does not want more migrants to keep coming through the Mediterranean Sea, Europe should give more support to Niger.
The “Monday Caravan” to Libya
For months now, several trucks with migrants from Agadez set out every Monday shortly before sunset towards the north. The crisis in Libya has contributed to human traffickers being able to reach the Mediterranean Sea without the usual controls. And we soon learned that the authorities here in Niger have little interests in their activities.
“The girls are getting younger”
Many of the migrants from Nigeria land on the streets in Italy. Social worker Lisa Bertini works with foreign prostitutes. “They are coming more and more,” she told us. According to official figures, about 1,000 Nigerians went to Italy across the Mediterranean in 2014. In 2015, the figure climbed to 4,000. “And the girls are getting younger,” the social worker said.
Looking for a “Madam”
With help from a Nigerian colleague, we discovered an alleged “Madam” in northern Italy. A Nigerian host in Italy is referred to as “Madam,” she is at the top of a smaller trafficking network. The madam we found lived in a suburb of Florence and one victim made serious accusations against the her: “She has been beating us and forced us into prostitution,” the victim said.
‘Madam’ and her girls
As we confronted the supposed “Madam” about the accusations, she admited accommodating six young Nigerian women in her house, but denied forcing them into prostitution: “It’s just something young Nigerians here do.” After our interview, we handed our research to the Italian public prosecutor’s office.
Cheap sexual satisfaction
Sister Monika Uchikwe has long been criticizing the inactivity of the Italian authorities. For eight years, she has cared for victims of human trafficking. She explained in rage as we asked about the customers. The men always want cheap satisfaction – sex with a Nigerian woman on the streets costs only 10 euros. “Without this possibility, this problem would not exist,” she said.
EU closely following the case
The Delegation of the European Union (EU) in Zambia told DW that it has been closely monitoring the case, especially since Croatia — an EU member — does not have an embassy in Zambia.
“As an institution, we are interested in this case because it involves citizens from a European country,” Elias Banda, the EU Delegation in Zambia press and information officer, said.
“In this particular case, the Croatians did not contact any member state. Instead, they decided to contact their own government, [which is] represented by an embassy in Pretoria, [which has] been in constant touch with these people,” Banda said.
Discourse about foreign adoptions
The case has re-ignited the old debate about child adoptions in Africa involving Western nationals. Critics argue that in some cases the practice has facilitated child trafficking. At the same time, supporters believe adoptions help reduce the burden of feeding, clothing, and sheltering orphaned kids in institutions and families that struggle to raise their children due to poverty.
“Lately, there’s been a lot of [human] trafficking cases that have been intercepted by the police, especially enroute to other countries,” Josphat Njovu, executive director of Advocacy for Child Justice (ACJ) in Zambia, told DW.
Mozambique: The child trafficking hub of southern Africa
Call to strengthen laws
“It’s a concern that we have as a country and also civil society organizations,” Njovu said, stressing that Zambia must strengthen the laws and policies surrounding child trafficking and human trafficking.
“What we’ve experienced is weak border controls in some borders and some countries, and this gives opportunities to unregistered children or human beings to pass.”
In 2014, the Kenyan government enacted a 20-year moratorium on intercountry adoptions, citing, among other reasons, concerns over the existing loopholes in adoption laws of local children by foreigners.
Reviewing adoption processes
At the time, the government of Kenya and the UN children agency Unicef undertook a review of the adoption process. Titled “a technical assessment of the legal provisions and practices of guardianship, foster care and adoption of children,” it highlighted weaknesses in the legal process subject to manipulation and leading to the commercialization of adoptions. That, critics feared, put adopted children at risk of exploitation.
South Africa once had a ban on international adoptions, too. However, it later lifted the ban after establishing a proper legal framework in government agencies could trace the movement of adopters. With that kind of framework, the government argued, it would be easy to monitor the well-being of children after adoption.
Carrying out due diligence
In Zambia, all adoptions must go through an elaborate process involving more than one government organization to ensure due diligence.
“The process commences with the Ministry of Community Development,” Lisuba Kabanda, a representative from the Ministry of Home Affairs, said.
“They are the ones who receive the application or the intention by a family to adopt a child, they asses that family to ensure that the family [is] able to take good care of that child.”
Kabanda said once they are satisfied the family is qualified to adopt that child, the case is taken to court for an adoption to be granted.
“Then the Ministry of Community Development compiles the documentation, together with the adoption, that is given to our department for registration, for us to issue an adoption certificate, together with an abridged birth certificate,” Kabanda said.