Fears of trafficking grow for Uganda's 'orphans'

Mohammad Luwasi, who the Ugandan authorities claim has been trafficked to the US, was initially sent there for surgery to correct his spinal deformity
Mohammad Luwasi, who the Ugandan authorities claim has been trafficked to the US, was initially sent there for surgery to correct his spinal deformityPHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MPIGI (Uganda) • When Ms Agatha Namusisi, 64, let her grandson leave Uganda for medical treatment abroad, she assumed he would return, but more than a year later she says he has disappeared.

"They are nowhere to be seen," Ms Namusisi said of the seven-year-old boy and his Ugandan carer who travelled together to the United States in May last year, after an Arizona-based Christian charity arranged for surgery to correct his crippling spinal deformity.

The case is just one example of international adoption gone wrong through misunderstanding, negligence or even criminality, a trend that has Ugandan lawmakers worried, with a 400 per cent increase in orphans going to the US alone between 2006 and 2013.

African Children's Charities (ACC) paid for Ms Namusisi's grandson, Mohammad Luwasi, to travel to the US and receive pro bono surgery after reading a newspaper report about his plight.

Believing him to be an orphan, on the basis of allegedly false documents, the charity took custody of the boy and, according to Mr Dickson Ogwang at the Ugandan embassy in Washington, plans to have him adopted there.

But Mohammad Luwasi's father, carpenter Isha Ssemata, 29, says he wants his son back. "I don't want anyone to adopt my child."

A series of unfortunate events led to Mohammad Luwasi's predicament. After his wife died, Mr Ssemata couldn't afford to look after him. So he took him to live with Ms Namusisi. She too was poor. So when a charity offered to pay for his treatment, she seized the chance. Now father and grandmother fear he may never return.

"I signed papers I could not read, but I knew they were to help get this boy from here to America for treatment," said Ms Namusisi.

In Uganda, there is no word for "adoption" in the Western sense, implying permanence. Rather, sending children abroad is seen as similar to enrolling them at boarding school or an apprenticeship.

In May, Uganda's Parliament debated the "dubious circumstances" in which "hundreds" of children leave the country despite an estimated 80 per cent of so-called orphans having living relatives and the existence of a domestic adoption programme. A government report is soon to be published on alleged corruption and deception in international adoptions. The government has signalled its intent to close a legal loophole enabling foreigners to adopt, while legislators warn that some cases "border on trafficking".

ACC president Vikki Kattman denies trafficking Mohammad Luwasi - whom she called "Lewis" - and said there was no intention to put him up for adoption.

"We will legally return Lewis to Uganda when it is appropriate," Ms Kattman said. ACC insisted it operates legally in Uganda, a claim dismissed by Mr Moses Binoga, head of the country's anti-trafficking task force.

Mohammad Luwasi's case is due in court in Kampala, where Ugandan officials will argue for the boy to be returned.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2015, with the headline 'Fears of trafficking grow for Uganda's 'orphans''. Print Edition | Subscribe