At first it was hard for me to understand the sums of money that make it all add up. Why are there so many orphanages in Kathmandu conning poor parents to hand their children over, or grabbing kids off the street? How could it be worth the effort, and why do parents and activists find it so hard to go after these crooks?
There have been nasty stories about orphanages in Kathmandu for the past few decades that there have been today's kinds of orphanages. For a while the worry was about foreign paedophiles associating themselves with unregulated children's homes, and there were some vague reports. But although those things surely happened, and still do, the big story turned out to be orphanages trafficking children for international adoption.
There are many orphanages in Kathmandu, many unregistered. According to the government's Child Welfare Board, even among the registered ones many are graded very low for child welfare. Even if they manage to close one down, it pops up in some other district. There are also some good orphanages and NGOs in Kathmandu, which do very important work but this blog is not about them.
Five or ten years ago, scores of orphanages in Kathmandu were procuring children from vulnerable families. The kids often come from remote areas, from villages without health care, where the school hardly exists, where food and clothing is scarce. Parents were readily convinced by promises that their child would receive an education and the care it needed.
The orphanage owner might then falsify the child's identity by placing a notice in the newspaper, claiming it had been found lost. If no one came forward to identify the child, the government would certify it as an orphan, suitable for adoption. Desperate foreign couples paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to officials and "donations" to orphanages to clear the endless paperwork, and rescue the child they'd fallen in love with, from a slightly grotty but well-meaning orphanage.
The government declared a temporary ban on international adoption in 2007, but the ban was lifted without much reform. Then the foreign embassies recognised how rotten the whole scene was and stopped issuing papers for adoptions from Nepal.
So the scene moved on. Dozens of orphanages are still 'finding' kids by deceiving parents in remote districts, with promises of education and decent care. A few determined parents finally get in touch with activists, revealing that the orphanage is denying them access to their child. It is mostly through these rare instances that individual cases come to light, and some specific pressure is brought to bear on this massive commercial interest.
Now that the adoption racket is on ice indefinitely, the orphanages are targeting Western volunteers, who come to work for a few weeks during their travels. This is where I fail to understand the sums of money that drive the current scam.
It seems to go like this: The volunteers pay a percentage over the real cost of their bed and board, and some make a personal donation. That doesn't seem like much money, but there are a lot of volunteers. After they get home these conscientious young people raise thousands of euros, or pounds, or dollars, to support the place where they had such a significant experience.
This isn't the most, but it's one of the most cynical parts of the whole scheme. The volunteers are caring young people, far too innocent to suspect a scheme. I can only imagine that they look at the uncomfortable environment of the orphanage, believing that what's missing is money. Volunteers we talked to broke down at the suggestion of foul play. Two children rescued from the orphanage we filmed this week told us that they'd been told not to speak to the foreigners, anyway.
If you are looking for a clue as to how much money is being made on dodgy orphanages, you could look at how reluctant the government is to tackle this problem. When parents and activists turn to the police and authorities to get kids out of orphanages they run into bureaucratic hurdles.
The international community could also do more. Embassies could issue advice and warnings. Maybe something could be done by reputable organisations so people who want to help know which places are credible.
In the end, though, the problem lies in the villages. While there are places without healthcare, or good schools, there will always be parents as innocent as the volunteers, willing to entrust their child to a person who seems nice and who promises a better future.