14. August 2019
A court in Belgium is investigating an orphanage for alleged abduction and trafficking of children from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Children were brought to Belgium and adopted by families who had been told they were orphans. Years later, DNA tests have proved that in some cases they were not.
Hundreds of miles north of DR Congo's capital, Kinshasa, is the village of Gemena. Most people make a living from agriculture or fishing; others are carpenters or shopkeepers.
Abdula Libenge, a 34-year-old tailor, is the father of one of four families in the area who in May 2015 sent a child away to Kinshasa on what they thought was a holiday camp.
Their children never came back. Without access to legal representation or assistance from local authorities, all they could do was wait.
About two years after Mr Libenge's daughter disappeared, he received an unexpected visit that would finally shed light on what happened.
Belgian journalists Kurt Wertelaers and Benoit de Freine had got wind of an inquiry beginning into adoption fraud in their country.
How the two journalists uncovered a scandal
The Belgian public prosecutor had strong indications that the biological parents of a number of Congolese children adopted in Belgium were still alive, and the pair had set out to find them.
Their search led them from Brussels to Abdula Libenge's workshop in Gemena.
He took them inside and produced a picture of his daughter.
"Taken on the day she left for Kinshasa," he told them. "She was so happy. We'll never get the chance to go to Kinshasa. We can't afford the plane ticket. But she got the chance, and it made us proud."
It was one of several photos of the group of three girls and one boy, then aged between two and four.
One photo shows them with a young man from a youth organisation, their chaperone to the so-called holiday camp.
"All we have left is this picture and a shoe," Mr Libenge continued, producing a tiny, white ballet pump for the journalists.
Outside another home Suriya Moyumbe was waiting in tears, clutching a picture of her daughter, who was a toddler when she left and could not yet talk.
"My husband's family blames me for giving her away for that holiday. I should never have done that. But we all thought it was a great opportunity," she told the reporters.
The The two Belgian journalists: Kurt Wertelaers (L) and Benoit de Freine - © BBC
Wertelaers and De Freine returned to Brussels to present their evidence and the public prosecutor then travelled to Gemena to gather DNA.
Everything added up.
The Tumaini orphanage in Kinshasa has since been shut down.
Belgian-Congolese lawyer Julienne Mpemba is under house arrest and facing criminal charges for her role as head of the orphanage.
Her lawyer, George Balon Perin, has said she "challenges in the clearest way the charges against her", adding that she is not being prosecuted in DR Congo, where the alleged events took place.
Other people have been indicted both in Belgium and DR Congo, the lawyer has told the BBC.
'Slap in the face' for new families
In Belgium, the news was broken to adoptive families one by one.
Some adoptive parents had already voiced their concerns during the adoption process, and told the BBC the news confirmed their fears.
"Knowing DR Congo's reputation, I was very afraid, but the adoption agency really pushed us towards it and reassured us everything would be legal," said one father, who declined to named.
"It felt like a slap in the face when we heard. This is what I had always wanted to avoid. And now, despite myself, I have a stolen child."
One mother described how the agency had poured water on her concerns every time she raised objections. Then one day, her adopted daughter had enough French to start talking about her biological family.
"Once she said 'you're not my mummy, Mummy', when we were reading a fairy-tale.
"I raised the alarm immediately but was dismissed. I thought she might have been talking about an interim, host mother that she had been living with before coming here. But no. It was her mum."
When the story broke in Belgium, four children were involved. Now, the adoptive parents of a further 15 children are awaiting the outcome of DNA tests.
Why international adoptions can be a risk
"There are people who did not do their job, people who might have benefited financially or in some other way," says lawyer Georges-Henri Beauthier, who is acting for three of the adoptive families.
"You have to see all of these people collectively as a truly criminal organisation, that is well organised in DR Congo and in Belgium."
Facts and rules
- Inter-country adoption begins as ad hoc humanitarian solution after World War Two
- By 1980s, critics complain it has become a lucrative industry
- In 1993 an international treaty comes into force: The Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption
- All countries that receive adoptees are signed up to this treaty by law
- Such adoptions should take place in the "best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights"
- More and more countries that send adoptees have signed up. DRC is not one of them
According to child protection expert Nigel Cantwell, these are not isolated cases.
"There is always a bit of anarchy in adoption when you're dealing with a country which is not party to the Hague Convention, as is the case for DR Congo. There are so many examples in recent years: Haiti, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia. The list is just huge."
He believes intermediaries, including children's homes, need regulating and, if possible, removing from the process. "They are the ones making money. Unless you control the money, you won't control the corruption."
What will happen to the children?
A Belgian family court will ultimately decide on the children's future.
"It's case by case, but any solution should depend enormously on what the child says. We can't just go about taking decisions on what we think is good for a child without getting that child's opinion," explains Mr Cantwell.
For everyone involved the next stage will be hard, and Mr Beauthier says the adoptive parents are preparing themselves for it.
"There is this human reflex which is to say 'no, no. This is my child, I won't let her go.' No. That would be unacceptable, and my clients understand this full well."
For one adoptive father there is no good outcome.
"We really ask ourselves: what is best for this child? And we don't have the answer. But there isn't really an answer. We're all losers in this story."
In Gemena, Abdula Libenge had little hope of his daughter coming home.
"I know people will say that she is better off in Belgium. And you know, maybe she is, but I don't think it was up to anyone else to make that choice. And we didn't get one."
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Belgium Requests the DNA of Children Adopted From Congo Amid Kidnapping Fears
A Congolese child is seen at a makeshift orphanage that houses children separated from their families, in Beni, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on Feb. 6, 2018 - picture: John Wessels— AFP/Getty Images
January 30, 2019
Belgian officials have requested DNA samples from children adopted from the Democratic Republic of Congo to determine if they were falsely declared orphans and kidnapped, BBC reports.
The adoptive parents of around 15 children have been contacted, according to officials.
Prosecutors suspect the biological parents thought their kids were going to a holiday camp, not to an orphanage that has since been shuttered.
“There are only losers in this story and the judge will have to determine where the best interests of the kids lie,” Flemish MP Lorin Parys told the BBC.
While Congo has among the highest rates of orphaned kids, it stopped issuing exit permits for adoptions in 2013 amid trafficking concerns, according to BBC. Cases underway at the time were still processed.
Belgian authorities began investigating child-smuggling from the central African nation in 2017 when a report revealed four adopted children had falsely been declared orphans. Belgian journalists traced the cases back to biological parents who said their children never returned from what was billed as a youth camp. The kids, who were between the ages of two and four at the time, were instead taken to the Tumaini orphanage.
After the 2017 report, Belgian officials looked into all the country’s adoptions from the Tumaini orphanage. The 15 cases involved children who arrived between 2013 and 2015, and whose biological parents are believed to still be alive, BBC reports.
“They are different age ranges but the kids who’ve been here the shortest time have been here three and a half years, so they have all been integrated,” said Parys. “The parents here have done nothing wrong and of course the parents in Congo are devastated that they lost their kids under false pretenses.”
Belgium children face DNA tests amid DR Congo kidnap fears
By BBC - 29 January 2019
Belgian authorities have asked for DNA samples of children adopted from the Democratic Republic of Congo to establish if their biological parents are still alive, reports say.
They have contacted the adoptive parents of some 15 children to find out if the youngsters were kidnapped, according to Belgian newspapers.
Prosecutors suspect the parents thought they were sending their children to a Kinshasa holiday camp not an orphanage.
The orphanage has since been shut down.
"There are only losers in this story and the judge will have to determine where the best interests of the kids lie," Flemish MP Lorin Parys told the BBC.
What happened to the children?
Thousands of African children have been adopted in recent years from countries including Ethiopia and Uganda.
Fears of child-smuggling in DR Congo prompted the central African country to halt exit permits for adopted children in 2013. Some cases continued to go through because they had already begun.
DR Congo has one of the highest rates of orphaned children, but it emerged in 2017 that four children who had been adopted in Belgium had been falsely declared as orphans. All four had been aged between two and four when they were taken to Belgium from the Tumaini orphanage in Kinshasa.
A team of Belgian journalists traced the children's parents to a town about 850km (530 miles) from the capital Kinshasa. The parents said their children had been given the opportunity of going with a young organisation to a holiday camp but had never returned.
Why have new cases emerged?
Since the original four cases emerged, Belgian authorities have investigated a series of adoptions of children who came from the Tumaini orphanage. All 15 are thought to have come to Belgium between 2013 and 2015.
A spokesman for Belgium's public prosecutor said couples had been contacted with a request for an expert to conduct a DNA test on their adopted child, Nieuwsblad reports.
Belgium's judiciary has strong indications that the children's parents are still alive. Like the four other children, the parents are thought to have sent their youngsters to the Tumaini orphanage under the assumption that they were going to a holiday camp.
"They are different age ranges but the kids who've been here the shortest time have been here three and a half years, so they have all been integrated," explained Mr Parys, an MP with the N-VA party in the Flemish parliament.
"The parents here have done nothing wrong and of course the parents in Congo are devastated that they lost their kids under false pretences."
Belgian-Congolese lawyer Julienne Mpemba has been investigated for her role as head of the orphanage. Her lawyer was unavailable for comment on Tuesday, however he has in the past declared that she is innocent.
Georges-Henri Beauthier, a lawyer representing three of the adoptive families, said the DNA tests would not change anything.
"No-one I know is arguing that the children here came here in a network with false papers," he told Belgian public broadcaster RTBF. "What my clients have been calling for for two and a half years is that those who are the true heads of these networks are questioned and arrested and answer for their actions."