MONDAY MAY 18, 2009

Are adopted children invisible commodities?
In a globalizing world, it should matter less where children are brought up, and more how
By Chris Williams

Madonna’s efforts to adopt another child from Malawi fill the international press, and the familiar songs about the rights and wrongs of adoption are sung again. But what about Koreans adopted abroad, and adoption from elsewhere in East Asia? In her book, “Ten Thousand Sorrows,” Elizabeth Kim tells how, in a Korean village in the 1950s, she and her mother were made to live in a separate hut, because she was fathered by an American solider. Because of this, she saw her mother being hanged by male relatives, and was sent to a fundamentalist Christian orphanage, which was more like a prison. Then she was adopted by a Calvinist pastor in America who would tape record her screams as he beat her. She was then married off to another pastor who jumped on her stomach when she was pregnant, put her in the dog kennel to sleep, and made her watch while he had sex with other women. “Honor killings,” abuse of girls and women, and forced marriages are not just horrors of the Muslim world. One expert, Tobias Hubinette, traces international adoption from Korea back to 1860, when famine and poverty had caused children to be sent to Russia and Manchuria. He estimates that there were 148,394 overseas adoptions between 1953 and 2001. He believes that “adoption is too often used to get rid of ‘impure’ and costly children whether stigmatized by illegitimacy (‘sasaenga’), by disability (‘changae’a’) or by race (‘honhyeola’).” Adoptees were seen by Park In-sun as an aspect of Korean economic development, as “goodwill ambassadors” or “victims in a pursuit of greater national economic prosperity.” In the 1950s, numerous Korean children were adopted through religious organizations in the United States, Australia, and Europe. They were not all war orphans. Some were “GI babies,” from Korean women and non-Korean soldiers. The Korea Herald has often discussed subsequent trends under headlines such as, “IMF economic pinch increases number of abandoned children” in 1999, and “Korea still main source of adoptions in America” in 2001. North Korean orphans, and the “Kosian” children fathered by guest workers from elsewhere in Asia, provide new aspects. Since 2004, the International Korean Adoptees Association has worked to mitigate the resultant problems, but also to optimize the benefits. The U.N. Children’s Rights commission questioned Korean officials about the reasons for international adoption from a country with the 12th largest economy in the world, in 2003. But they might also have asked why Britain was still exporting its surplus children to Canada and Australia in the 1970s.

Chris Williams
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Williams is based at the Center for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, and has also held posts at the universities of London, Bristol, Cambridge, Cairo and the United Nations. is author of the books “Invisible Victims: Crime and Abuse Against People with Disabilities” (1995), and “Leadership Accountability in a Globalizing World” (2006), Palgrave Macmillan, London. can be reached at chrisunula@yahoo.com

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Many were not orphans, and many suffered serious sexual and other abuse in religious orphanages, where the main aim seemed to be to increase the colonial stock of compliant white Christian laborers. The export and institutionalization of surplus children has a long tradition in Europe. In his book “Republic” 2,400 years ago, Greek philosopher Plato recommended that orphans, together with criminals and their children, and widows, were to be sent to the “colonies.” In 19th century Italy, around 43 percent of the children of Florence were put into orphanages. There is no East Asian city, however poor, that is abandoning its children to that extent. Korea is not unique. Causal factors are global and media reports are not always what they seem. In 1997, the international press reported how parents in Hong Kong, who had disabled children and were planning to migrate, were putting their children into orphanages on the mainland. But there was no mention that some of these “orphans” were created because of the immigration laws of Western countries. Parents believed that having a disabled child would reduce their

chances of getting a visa to a Western country. Canadian Immigration Acts had barred “mentally handicapped” people and those with epilepsy, and mentioned “prohibited classes” who could become a burden on social welfare or health services. A decade ago, the American media carried horror stories about Chinese orphanages, and a report from Human Rights Watch, talked of “cruelty, abuse, and malign neglect,” that affected 15 million orphans. A piece in the Washington Post in 1996, “China’s orphanages and death,” made parallels with the Nazi concentration camps. A report from Macau, “The Caged Kids,” showed children apparently kept like zoo animals. Like other western critiques of the East, the description of orphanages veiled double standards. In 1966, Burton Blatt had exposed the grossly inhumane conditions within American institutions in his book “Christmas in Purgatory.” His photographs showed naked, pained children and adults, sitting it their own excrement, or warehoused in beds with no space between them. They were truly reminiscent of a concentration camp. When I did research about the abuse of disabled people in Britain in the

1990s for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there were many cases of assault, abduction and rape by care staff. One patient had died as a result of being tied to a toilet by nurses while they had lunch. In 1997, Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the children in Hong Kong’s refugee camps, which were holding the so-called Vietnamese “boat people.” (They were, more accurately, refugees from U.S. intervention.) It did not mention that, because of the conditions in which children were held in these camps, Britain could not sign up fully to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Sino-British Fellowship Trust assisted me to visit China at this time. My tour was carefully managed, but I became aware how the Western press photographers had set up their images of apparent neglect and abuse in East Asia. One famous picture, showing an “orphaned girl” tied in a chair, was actually of a traditional bamboo baby seat. But the picture was taken from an angle that made the chair look like an implement of torture. Other pictures showing “caged children” had been taken through barred windows that are common in shops and hous-

es across Asia. The pictures did not show that the doors were open. I also saw a state-of-the-art disability hospital in Beijing, funded and supported by Japan, which was better equipped than anything I had seen outside China. It even included a specially adapted swimming pool. Elsewhere, staff at a small workshop for young people with psychiatric problems grumbled that the patients were paid nearly as much as the staff, but felt that this demonstrated China’s belief that all people had equal value. Current websites perpetuate negative stories, and publicize agencies that arrange for the adoption of East Asian babies. Adoptable babies are in short supply in Eestern countries. East Asian infants are seen as in need of rescue, and attractive. Yet despite this, children with disabilities are rarely accepted. Viviana Zelizer explains how we commoditize children in her insightful book, “Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children.” The moral and emotional rewards of adopting a child are high, as can be the financial rewards for the agencies and travel companies that make the arrangements.

Even if imperfect, orphanages and adoption may be better than the other options for unwanted children. In 2007, the U.S. State Trafficking in Persons Report talked of 10,000-20,000 people, mainly women and children, who have been “‘trafficked primarily from Anhui, Henan, Hunan, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou Provinces to prosperous provinces along PRC’s east coast for sexual exploitation.” It also mentions forced marriages, and international trafficking for prostitution. But it does not mention that many clients are European and American, tourists. The agency, Americans adopting orphans presents a more balanced view — “There have been some negative reports in the popular media about bad conditions in Chinese orphanages. These reports have been greatly exaggerated. While life in an orphanage in a developing country can be quite harsh, and while some orphanages do a better job than others, overall orphanages in China are adequate places staffed by caring people. ... We believe that care for children without families is better in China than in any other developing country.” The same is probably true

now across most of East Asia. It is likely that many of the children who stayed in East Asian orphanages had excellent care, and are now enjoying the thriving economy. And some did not. Many adopted abroad will have had a wonderful life. But some may have suffered abuse and neglect similar to that which East Asia was accused of. Fate can make a vulnerable child into a valuable global commodity, slave, emotional prize, or pawn in the rhetoric of international politics. The German philosopher, Kant, made the distinction between value in terms of the “price” of what can be “replaced by something else as its equivalent”, and what is “above all price” and “has no equivalent”, which has “dignity.” Dignity is not a commodity. In a globalizing world, it should matter less where children are brought up, and more, how. In the words of an Ella Fitzgerald song, which predates Madonna, “It ain’t what you do, but the way that you do it.” To have dignity and be happy, children do not need to be valuable, just ordinary. And people who adopt, or professionals who provide care, don’t need to be a Madonna to do it.

Emerging economies face acute disaster risks: U.N.
GENEVA (Reuters) — Natural disasters threaten to trigger widespread damage and distress in emerging economies, many of which are already on the brink because of the global recession, a United Nations body said on Sunday. There are 1 billion people living in hazard-prone slums and shantytowns in developing countries, many of which overlooked safety standards in recent years of red-hot growth, according to the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. Crammed settlements with poor drainage systems are making floods more frequent and severe in many cities, particularly in Asia, where the ISDR said big swathes of commercial assets and infrastructure are also exposed to storms and earthquakes. “Disaster risk is rising in an alarming way, threatening development gains, economic stability and global security,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, introducing the 200-page report launched in Bahrain. The Geneva-based ISDR estimated that the share of the global economy at direct risk from floods has doubled since 1990, and that 28 percent more people are now vulnerable to losing their homes, incomes and lives than two decades ago. “Most flood risk is concentrated in Asian countries,” it said, estimating that three quarters of those at risk of dying in floods around the world are concentrated in Bangladesh, India and China. Thailand and Indonesia also face substantial threats from floods, the report said. Bangladesh was listed as facing the highest mortality risk from cyclones, along with China, India, the Philippines, Myanmar and Madagascar, while Ethiopia, Indonesia and India are most vulnerable to deadly landslides. China and India are most at risk from deaths in earthquakes, followed by Indonesia, El Salvador, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sub-Saharan African countries were cited as having the most people and crops exposed to risks from drought. The poorest communities in developing countries are at highest risk from disasters and are rarely covered by insurance. The ISDR estimated that 1.7 million people have been killed in 23 “mega disasters” since 1975, and said that major storms and weather-related emergencies are expected to increase as a result of global warming. “Many urban areas will also experience stress through water and energy shortages, heat and cold waves and more prevalent disease vectors,” it said, raising particular concern about the im-

Thousands of people pack the road to the devastated town of Beichuan last Tuesday, one year after it was destroyed by an earthquake.
AFP-Yonhap News

pact of rising oceans on Dhaka, Mumbai and Shanghai, large parts of which are only 1 to 5 meters above sea level. The ISDR stressed it is not just geography that makes impoverished pockets of the world most vulnerable to disasters, saying that weak governance has made both people and economies in poorer countries

more exposed to devastation. For example, the report said while Japan and the Philippines have virtually the same exposure to tropical cyclones, they kill 17 times more people in the Philippines. Cyclones of the same strength also typically damage 20 times more of Madagascar’s gross domestic product than Japan’s.

It accused local officials worldwide of turning a blind eye to poorly built homes, schools and other buildings, and said governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America routinely ignore slums in low-lying and landslide-prone areas. “Some low and middle-income countries which have experienced recent and rapid econom-

ic growth are more at risk from disaster because governance and construction standards have lagged and corruption is still rife,” it said. “Even in high income countries, problems persist as can be seen from last month’s earthquake in Italy which destroyed a number of buildings constructed in modern times.”

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