Eleven thousand children from Sri Lanka were adopted by Western couples in the 1980s, some with fake identities. Hundreds of children who came to Switzerland are now trying to discover whether they were illegally smuggled into the country.
According to the Rundschau current affairs programme on Swiss Public Television, SRF, small children were stolen in Sri Lanka, then sold or adopted. The scandal was reported at the time, but details reemerged after a recent Dutch TV report, causing an international stir.
Joëlle Schickel-Küng, head of the Central Agency for International Adoptions at the Federal Office of Justice has confirmed that the government has launched its own investigations into what seem to have been illegal practices, but as it was so long ago, the enquiry could take a long time.
Many of the adopted children have sought information about their origins in Sri Lanka. Romy Walcher was lucky enough to find her birth mother, who explained that she became pregnant due to an extramarital relationship. Her husband then sold Romy to a "baby farm", against her mother's wishes.
At the “baby farm”, children are said to have been kept in precarious conditions. The adoptions were handled by a court in Colombo, but private agents helped western couples with the procedure. Foreign women were allegedly paid to play the role of the real mothers, so that European adoptive parents would not suspect anything.
Rundschau gathered together some of the children brought to Switzerland for adoption, who are now grown up and have set up their own association. They are calling for support in investigating their origins and finding out who knew what about illegal practices.
Controversial Swiss adoption agent
Alice Honegger from St Gallen was a key figure in procuring toddlers from Sri Lanka for adoption in Switzerland in the 1980s. Her business partner in Sri Lanka was the lawyer Rukmani Thavanesan, a well-known mediator in Colombo, who became the focus of the smuggling scandal. She died in 2010. The canton of St Gallen temporary withdrew Honegger’s licence to organise adoptions from Sri Lanka, but she later teamed up with adoptive parents to form an association, which was allowed to legally adopt children from Sri Lanka.
Former social worker Pedro Sutter, now retired, took her place when she left the agency. In 1984 he went to Sri Lanka to meet Rukmani Thavanesan, and afterwards advised the Swiss adoption association to stop working with her. He said nobody seemed to be interested in how private adoption agencies came across the children they sent abroad. Laws protecting children in international adoptions did not exist at that time. Asked whether he thought Honegger was a child smuggler he replied, “No. But I don’t think she put the interests of the children first”.
Honegger died in 1997. Her adoptive son, Rudolf, told Rundschau, “She had a good relationship with Mrs. Thavanesan and I think the two ladies always respected the law." He says he is happy to hand over the 250 adoption dossiers from this period to the authorities, which may shed more light on what seems to have been yet another murky chapter of Swiss history.