Where have all the children gone?

The earthquake in Nepal caused thousands of children to lose their homes. Many may now end up in illegal orphanages — but not all of them are orphans. Nicola Smith reports on a child-trafficking scandal in which many British companies are implicated

There is an uncomfortable poignancy about the way we are greeted when we arrive at the run-down orphanage in the foothills of the Himalayas. The iron gate swings open, and five young children sprint out of a muddy courtyard, immediately grabbing our legs and shouting “Hello sister,” “Hello brother.” They take hold of our hands and hug us; yet we are strangers to each other. We are led to believe that they are orphans, but who really knows?

Kathmandu has a lot of orphans and a lot of orphanages. There are close to 600 registered by the Nepalese government and many more operating without a government permit. In a country blighted by chronic debt, extreme poverty and massive unemployment, it’s perhaps not surprising that so many children lose their homes and families. And with the earthquake last spring causing chaos across the country, even more children have been displaced. It’s been estimated that more than 16,000 Nepalese children are living in some sort of institution — yet aid agencies, and even the government itself, have acknowledged that as many as two-thirds of those are not orphans. Their parents have simply released them into the orphanages’ care, or sold them.