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Secrets and lies in the histories of overseas babies

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Many adoptees struggle with displacement, loss and powerlessness, writes Esther Han.

Stunned by the truth … intercountry adoptee Kim Myung-Soo as a baby with her older sister in Korea.

Stunned by the truth … intercountry adoptee Kim Myung-Soo as a baby with her older sister in Korea. Photo: Steven Siewert

UNTIL she was in her late 20s, Kim Myung-Soo believed she was put up for adoption because she was born out of wedlock to South Korean factory workers. She was four when an Australian couple picked her up from Seoul and brought her up in rural NSW.

But when the 30-year-old from Canterbury was reunited with her birth mother in Seoul, she was stunned by the truth. Her parents had been married, did not work in a factory, and her real name was altered to Myung-Joo.

She learnt her mother was forced to relinquish her in order to remarry after her father had died. Single mothers are shunned in Korean society.

"Most of the Korean adoptees I know have confronted problems in the search for their family," said the social work student. "Half records, false information, whole files missing. Could be something big, something small, but it's nearly a given something will be incorrect."

Adoptee support groups and adoption experts are calling on the federal government to recognise the suffering of overseas birth mothers and their children in its impending apology for domestic forced adoption practices.

They claim many intercountry adoptions were also characterised by lack of freely given consent, deception and coercion, and that the government failed to prevent overseas children being removed in conditions it was opposed to in Australia.

Academics from nine Australian universities have written to the government's apology reference group, urging it to consider the growing research that shows the "loss and pain [suffered by overseas birth mothers] is at least equal to that of mothers in Australia".

Adoptees from countries including New Zealand, the US and South Korea have also sent a letter demanding an apology, saying as intercountry adoptees they "have also suffered similar hardships … including displaced belonging, disempowerment in relation to access to adoption information and their identity, and a profound sense of loss".

The dean of graduate research at RMIT, Denise Cuthbert, said international studies showed birth mothers were often separated from their children because they were single, widowed, divorced or poor.

"The federal government failed to satisfy itself that women in sending countries were relinquishing their children with free consent in a way it now insists Australian women do," Professor Cuthbert said. "No immigration can take place without the Commonwealth so they have direct involvement.''

More than 10,000 children have been adopted into Australia since the 1970s from countries such as China, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Of the 384 adoptions of children in 2010-11, 56 per cent involved overseas children.

South Korea has sent 2282 children to Australian parents since 1987, making it one of the top countries of origin.

Korean adoptee HeeRa Heaser signed both protest letters. "A 2005 government committee report showed that domestic adoption decreased when intercountry adoption occurred. It recognises the two are interconnected," she said.

A spokesman from the Attorney-General's Department said the apology reference group was focusing on "past adoption policies and practices specifically in Australia''.

The department said that, as a signatory of the Hague Convention, it would adhere to international standards for intercountry adoptions, which includes measures to prevent the abduction of, sale of or traffic in children.

Kim Myung-Soo is one of more than 200,000 Koreans adopted overseas since the Korean War armistice in 1953. While she believes recognition of intercountry adoption in a formal apology is a good first step, she is not convinced "lumping it" with domestic adoption is the best option.

"Including intercountry adoption is not going to reflect the complexities of two different cultures, two different historical contexts and two different lived experiences," she said.

Last month a 24-year-old Korean from Sydney filed a complaint to the Attorney-General after she learnt her adoption was unlawful. Her record showed her parents were unwed but her birth mother was told by a midwife she was stillborn.

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