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The BBC's Sue Lloyd Roberts reports
"It is easy to buy babies in Bucharest"
 real 28k

Friday, 3 March, 2000, 22:29 GMT
Shopping for Romanian babies
There are still 140,000 children abandoned to the state
By the BBC's Sue Lloyd Roberts in Romania

There are few more depressing assignments than the Eastern European "orphanage beat". In Russia, you can find thousands of children who have been forcibly removed from parents deemed to be inadequate, through alcoholism, drug abuse or political inclination.

Unpaid careworker dishes out food
Orphanages are understaffed
The accepted belief is that the State is the best possible parent. In Romania you can find as many children who have been dumped in state institutions by parents who simply cannot afford to feed them.

I walk into a "Cassia dei Copii", a "house of children", in northern Romania. The smell of urine, the cold and dim lighting is familiar. A sea of expectant young faces looks up at me. Within seconds, two small fists are thrust into my hands. Others dig under their mattresses for childish drawings - no-one has a locker in which to keep personal belongings - which are then frantically held up to me for approval.

If you are prepared to pay, then you can shop for a baby

The children are desperate to give these offerings to someone, anyone. They call out, "What is your name, what is your name?" I am too choked to answer.

Give me a war zone any day, but spare me the emotional trauma of 100 children searching for a mother.

It takes some time to locate any adult carer - hardly surprising since there are only three on duty for the 100 or so children.

I ask whether it is true that, in some orphanages in Romania, only 1% are what we would describe as genuine orphans; the rest have been left for economic reasons.

"I don't know," the director says, looking around at all the children apparently without identities. "Their papers have been lost.

"But most of them haven't been visited for six months," she adds helpfully, which means that under Romanian law they are now the official property of the state.

And this is not a trip down memory lane to those pictures of half-starved, neglected children, the babies rocking in their cots, when journalists were first allowed access to Romania after the revolution 10 years ago.

Then, we found 150,000 children abandoned to the state. Since then, the situation has improved slightly - there are now 140,000.

'Vested interest'

In the thankfully, clean-smelling, warm offices of the European Union in the capital Bucharest, the Head of Mission holds his head in his hands.

Last year, the discovery of thousands of malnourished children in an investigation sponsored by Brussels prompted an emergency-feeding programme.

But attempts to persuade the authorities to do something fundamental, he says, meet with a blank wall of vested interest.

Dormitory in orphanage
The children live in poor conditions
"Thousands of jobs are involved in running these state institutions," he explains. "We are dealing with an industry of children."

"We're also dealing with the industrialisation of the womb," mutters an aide, ominously.

Posing as a wealthy, would-be parent of a Romanian orphan, I discover what he means. If you apply to adopt a Romanian orphan legally in the UK it takes months of approvals and then a child is selected for you.

If you are prepared to pay, then you can shop for a baby, as I did in a town some three hours drive north of Bucharest.

Local gossip says the orphanage director is making a fortune from the trade. She has powerful friends and the police are not allowed to investigate.

She shows me 60 babies she has in her baby shop that week. They all look clean but are still prone to the rocking motion of babies suffering from neglect.

She gives me three to chose from - Andrei, Nico, or Liviu - the ones she knows she can easily get permission for from their impoverished parents.

"I can forge their signatures if necessary," she says.

The sum of $20,000 is mentioned and she says she can get the baby delivered, all papers intact (her daughter is a lawyer) to my home in north London.

Baby trade

In the surrounding villages, I find the network which feeds the trade.

Wherever I stop, villagers come up to me asking, "Are you here to buy a baby?"

I am told of one couple who lost two of their children to the orphanage down the road.

"We took them there for the winter," explains the father. "Because we couldn't afford to feed them.

"And when we came to collect them, we were told they had gone."

The tears roll down his cheeks. The four-year-old boy who remains at home is holding on tightly to his father as he speaks, with some anxiety.

I then went to meet a woman who produces for the baby shop.

"I have given six children to the orphanage and kept two," she says. "I don't mean to keep this latest one."

She places a nine-month-old baby on my lap.

"You can have him if you like," she says.

"For $11,000," the father adds quickly.

I hand back the seventh baby I have been offered in as many days in Romania, make my excuses and leave.

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19 Jun 98 | Europe
The forgotten children
02 Jan 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
Bitter winter for Romania's street children
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