Hugentobler, Manuela

Graduate School

“Global baby markets”: mapping the il/legal geographies of inter-country adoption between Sri Lanka and Switzerland

Project lead

Surangika Jayarathne


Over the last many decades, the global baby trade has been a serious issue in relation to intercountry adoptions. Many infants were adopted from the global south to the global north during the 1980s (Cantwell, 2017).  From 1979–2020, nearly 930 children came to Switzerland as a result of intercountry adoption from Sri Lanka (Falk & Berthet, 2022). Widespread poverty, a lack of knowledge and limited access to contraception, strict national abortion laws, and a shared colonial experience in Sri Lanka have made the countries vulnerable to (il)legal inter-country adoption. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the illegal baby trade was at its peak in Sri Lanka and infants were secretly sold for profit. During this time, poor Sri Lankan women were gathered and kept for the sole purpose of giving birth to babies that would be given away for adoption. There were illegal networks behind this, which included medical professionals, lawyers, foreign adoption agencies, and orphanage owners involved in selling, stealing, and kidnapping babies to supply the demands of Westerners (Davies, 2011). In 2018, the government of Sri Lanka acknowledged that some babies adopted by foreigners in the 1980s were likely either bought or stolen from their biological parents (BBC Asia, 2018). Despite being aware of irregularities and child trafficking by the end of 1981, Swiss authorities did not halt adoptions from Sri Lanka until 1997(Chandrasekarh, 2017). Asking to what extent the intercountry adoption has shaped the intimate lives of the Sri Lankan adoptees living in Switzerland, this research tries to examine the intimate geographies of adoption. Moreover, it will trace back the linkage between colonialism and intercountry adoption while using postcolonial lenses to understand the phenomenon. It employed a mixed method to gather the data from the adoption stories which have been narrated by the Sri Lankan adoptees living in different parts of Switzerland. Ten Sri Lankan adoptees were interviewed in person and via Zoom using semi-structured interviews and photo-elicitation methods. The data was coded using MAXQDA after it was collected.


Geography(Social and Cultural Geography)


Prof. Dr. Carolin Schurr, Geographic Institute
University of Bern/ Dr. Francesca Falk, Department of History, University of Bern