Marshall Islands Correspondent

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — The filing of criminal trafficking in persons-related charges against three Marshall Islanders in mid-March in Majuro is expected to slow the flood of Marshallese baby adoptions in the United States. Adoptions of Marshallese babies has become big business for some U.S.-based attorneys and the agents who locate mothers, many of them pregnant, willing to give up their babies for adoption in the United States.

The surge in adoptions of Marshallese babies in the United States — concentrated in the states of Hawaii, Utah and Arkansas — prompted health providers to raise concerns in Hawaii and the online news organization Honolulu Civil Beat to investigate the extent of the adoption business and publish a series on “Black Market Babies” late last year.

Although the Compact of Free Association forbids using visa-free access for the purpose of adoptions, the ease with which Marshall Islanders can travel to the United States coupled with adoption demand from American families has fueled the off-shore adoption business.

But in mid-March, the Marshall Islands made its first legal move to stop the flow of Marshallese baby adoptions in the United States by filing criminal trafficking in persons-related charges against three Marshallese. Assistant Attorney General Meuton Laiden filed charges in the High Court against Justin Aine, 46, resident of Arkansas, and Aiti “Hatty” Anidrep, 49, and Sally Abon, 53, both of Majuro. Arkansas is a destination for many pregnant mothers who give their babies up for adoption after birth.

Aine was charged with one count each of trafficking in persons, unlawful solicitation and monetary inducement. Anidrep and Abon were both charged with one count each of aiding and abetting and unlawful solicitation. The charges are based on Marshall Islands law and the 2017 Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons Act, not the Compact of Free Association.

As the adoption business in the United States has skyrocketed, the number of adoptions handled through the Marshall Islands High Court has declined over the past several years. Adoptions performed in the Marshall Islands require the prospective American families to gain U.S. Homeland Security clearance in advance, and ultimately upon court approval in Majuro, lead to the U.S. family being able to get U.S. citizenship for the baby or child being adopted. While Compact status allows Marshallese to travel visa-free to the United States, it does not provide an avenue to gain U.S. citizenship.

The adoption business in the United States involves local agents who identify women willing to put their babies up for adoption. Those that agree are flown to various destinations in the United States a few months prior to delivery and put up in apartments until they deliver and give up their babies for adoption.

During a debate in the Marshall Islands parliament late last year, Majuro Sen. David Kramer said, “I remember past adoptions were solely for the welfare of the child. No payment was required. Now it’s commercialized.”

The recently filed charges against the three Marshall Islanders say that Aine, with the aid of Anidrep and Abon, recruited Susan Koraja (who was pregnant at the time) by giving her $120 cash and the promise of $10,000 in exchange for her child for adoption. The charges say Anidrep and Abon recruited Koraja by visiting her many times while she was in the Majuro Hospital, relaying communications from Aine and assisting her to get travel documents so the baby could be adopted in the United States.

Although there are different agents assisting U.S.-based attorneys to recruit Marshallese women for the adoption business, the charges filed in the High Court against the three Marshallese are expected to reduce the outflow of babies for adoption — at least until the outcome of the criminal case. mbj