Bibi Hasenaar has had two lives. One began in November 1976, when she was about four, arriving in the Netherlands to meet her adoptive parents. “I remember it vividly. There’s a photo of us at the airport with other children arriving from Bangladesh – it was published in a Dutch paper.” Her older brother Babu was there, too.
Her other life appears only in fragments. She remembers being in a children’s home with another older brother and having her food stolen by older children. “It was not a nice place to be,” Hasenaar says. Her only memory of their mother is her long black hair. But of the flight out of Bangladesh, she remembers every detail. At her kitchen table in the village of Muiderberg, 30 minutes’ drive east of Amsterdam, sipping hot water and fresh ginger, the 51-year-old slowly recounts the long journey that changed her life.
The plane, which felt huge to Hasenaar, who was malnourished and small for her age, was empty save for the four or five children who were being escorted for adoption. Babu was holding a black and white picture of his new family, but, Hasenaar says: “No one explained anything to me; I didn’t know what was happening.” She remembers a constant feeling of shock, interrupted briefly by awe when the plane took off and she realised they were in the sky. The only adult she recognised was an English woman she had seen at the children’s home in Bangladesh, who was there to escort them to their new families. At one point, Hasenaar became hysterical. “They tied me to the seat with a rope because I could not be calmed. I wasn’t allowed to go to my brother in the rows ahead; I just felt so alone.”
At Schiphol airport, things got worse. The children were taken to await the arrival of their adoptive parents. “It was a big room, and I felt very cold,” Hasenaar says. “They wouldn’t let me go to my brother.” To her horror, she soon discovered why: Babu had been adopted by a different family. Hasenaar began to cry inconsolably.
After three days with her new family, she was still in distress. “My new parents got in contact with the adoption agency and said: ‘It’s not possible for this girl to stay here – she is so sad and just wants to be with her brother.’” The couple who had adopted Babu agreed to take her, too.
But Hasenaar says she felt unwanted, both by her second adoptive family, who had only asked for one child, and by her birth mother, who she believed had given her up. Life in the Dutch village was completely alien. “I had to sleep when I wasn’t tired, eat when I wasn’t hungry,” she says. While Babu – who chose not to be interviewed for this article – adapted, Hasenaar says she has always been headstrong. “You can do what you want to me, but I don’t change my mind. So I think that was for my Dutch parents the most difficult part. Family life was awful.”
As a teenager, she strove for independence, taking on numerous part-time jobs. “I was also a little bit … crazy,” she laughs. “I have done things that are not good for you to print.” Even now, Hasenaar seems like a woman determined to enjoy life on her own terms. During a tour of the eccentric property she is renovating with Herman, her husband of 34 years, she says: “It used to be a commune, for people who liked to live off-grid … I would like to do that myself one day.” The huge garden is dotted with chickens and colourful hanging ornaments; in a field behind her house, there are two camels. She shows off a huge scar on her thigh where one of them recently bit her.
Hasenaar left home at 17 to be with Herman, whom she married in 1991. “He saved me,” she says, matter of factly. “And his family were so nice to me; they just accepted me.” She and Herman had children quickly, and Hasenaar was a mother of four by the time she was 26.
Sometime in 1993 – when she was in her early 20s, had two young children, and was working in a bar and studying part-time – Hasenaar began receiving letters from a person in Bangladesh claiming to represent her birth mother. The letters claimed that she had never intended to give her children up for adoption. “There was no internet then, no way of checking anything,” she says. Several letters arrived bearing the notary stamp of a Dhaka-based lawyer, asking for money to help with the case. After posting back the equivalent of a few hundred pounds in cash, Hasenaar heard nothing.
She contacted Wereldkinderen (World Children), the charity that had facilitated her adoption in 1976 while operating under the name BIA. “They told me that my mother was making it up because she was ashamed.” Hasenaar suggested she go to Bangladesh to investigate. “They told me it was dangerous to travel there, especially while pregnant, and that I would be seen by Muslims as an unbeliever. I was young and ignorant, and my adopted parents were always talking positively about the organisation, so I trusted them. I decided it would be unsafe to go.”
The letters stopped. With few options left, Hasenaar focused on raising her family. Then, in the summer of 2017, a friend sent her a link to a documentary. It was about children who had been adopted in the Netherlands, and a man who had discovered he had been taken from Bangladesh without his mother’s consent. “He talked about missing children,” Hasenaar says. “I immediately got goosebumps.”
An elderly woman appeared on screen, holding an old newspaper. Hasenaar could barely take in what she was seeing. “There were at least four children described as ‘missing persons’ in that newspaper. I looked at the pictures and said to myself: ‘That’s my brother.’ And then: ‘That’s me!’ I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
She dug out her adoption papers, which she had never closely examined before. She realised her date of birth was wrong, and she was listed as having arrived alone. “It felt so surreal,” she says. “All of a sudden, everything changed. I always felt that there was nobody in the whole world who wanted to take care of me, or who was missing me. And I realised, looking at those pictures … my mother, she really was trying to find me.”
Six months earlier, in January 2017, a man named Abdel Kader heard that a documentary crew, alongside a charity, was looking into the possible disappearance of children from Bangladesh’s Tongi region 40 years earlier. Kader knew he had to approach them with his own family’s story.
Tongi, situated on the outskirts of Dhaka, was once home to the Dattapara camp for refugees of the 1971 war. The brutal nine‑month conflict, during which East Pakistan broke away and became an independent state, was one of the bloodiest of the 20th century. It was the result of the Pakistani army’s violent response to Bengalis seeking self-rule, and saw mass rape, ethnic cleansing and airstrikes that razed entire villages to the ground.
By the time Bangladesh had won independence in December 1971, hundreds of thousands had been killed and millions more displaced. To resettle slum dwellers in the capital, three camps were set up; one of these was Dattapara. Conditions at the camp were deplorable, and in 1975 various NGOs – including Oxfam, World Vision and the Salvation Army – arrived to provide aid. In the years after the charities left, the camp grew into a slum, and a sense of despair still lingers today: a high school sits on the mass burial site of a genocide.
In the middle of the small bazaar of Tongi’s Ershad Nagar neighbourhood stands a set of tall iron gates bearing the letters “TDH”. The building, now used to administer ad-hoc health services, such as Covid-19 vaccines, was once the site of a children’s relief programme run by Terre des Hommes Netherlands (TDHn), a European NGO. Local families claim that in the 1970s the programme was used as a cover to kidnap young children for adoption abroad. TDHn denies these allegations, saying it was not and has never been an adoption agency.
After becoming displaced during the war, Kader’s family arrived in Tongi – and never left. They were incredibly poor. There was no chance of employment at the camp, and Kader’s mother, Samina Begum, a widow in her early 30s, had been left to care for three young children. Her situation was distressingly common, and like most of her neighbours, she survived on handouts from local charities, including TDHn, which distributed food and rations from a building inside the camp.
In autumn 1976, when Kader was 16, his mother was approached by men claiming to be TDHn foreign aid workers who told her they ran a children’s home within the camp where she could enrol her two youngest children, Bablu and Rahima, aged five and four. Wary, Begum turned them down, but then different men, some Bangladeshi but one described by Kader’s family as a white man, all claiming to work for TDHn, kept returning with promises. Other mothers had done the same thing, they told her. The children would be fed and educated, they said. The home could provide medical care. TDHn says the organisation did not run a children’s home and did not mandate staff to engage in adoption-related work.
Kader says that after being assured she could visit and that the children would be returned to her when they were older, Begum finally gave in.
The following week, she went to the building where she had dropped her children off, but the guards wouldn’t let her in. Though she was briefly allowed to see Bablu during one visit, the week after that they told her the children’s home was temporarily closed. In the third week, they said her children had been taken to another location. In a state of panic, Begum demanded to see Bablu and Rahima. In response, Kader said she was threatened with a gun and told never to come back. Begum would later learn that her children had been taken to the Netherlands for adoption and now went by their middle names, Babu and Bibi. She never saw them again.
Kader, 63, suffered a stroke in March 2023 that left him unable to move properly and struggling to breathe. But when describing what happened to his mother, fury enters his voice. “Listen, my mother was a fighter. From that moment, trying to find ways to get her children back consumed her life.”
He remembers going with his mother to the police station so she could report what had happened to her children. “She was literally thrown out,” Kader says angrily. “We were poor. It was difficult to get our voices heard.” Undaunted, she approached a lawyer for help, and asked a local journalist to place a picture of her missing children in a newspaper – the one that was featured in the documentary Hasenaar saw.
Samina died in 2008. “My mother was a strong woman, but fighting the system for so long took its toll on her,” Kader says. Once energetic and joyful, she became withdrawn and fell into depression. “She stopped talking and eating. There were days where I couldn’t even recognise her. In the process of losing my siblings, I felt I had lost my mother, too.
“I was only 16 when they were taken. That day changed my life forever,” he says. “My father died during the war, so my mother was all we had. I was a lot older than my siblings and it was often my job to look out for them, so when they were taken I felt partly responsible. There were three of us siblings, and then all of a sudden it was just me. I felt very alone,” he says.
Hasenaar and Kader had their first phone call in 2017. It was a conversation fractured by translation issues, but laden with emotion. Hasenaar wept as her brother told her their mother had died. A few weeks later, the siblings were reunited at the airport in Dhaka. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw Abdel,” Hasenaar recalls. “He looked exactly like my brother Babu. They even dressed and spoke in the same manner. When we reached the village where I am from, everyone came out to welcome me. They told me how much I looked like my mother, and that made me really happy.”
In finding out the truth about her mother and the circumstances of her adoption, Hasenaar has also unearthed details of a scandal, mired in the turmoil and poverty of Tongi, and decades-old allegations of an adoption ring. Samina Begum was one of dozens of mothers who made the allegations against TDHn. All claim they handed over their children believing it to be for temporary care, only to discover that they had vanished abroad to be adopted by strangers. The charity says it investigated the claims and found them to be “wholly incorrect”, adding that many local people wrongly understood TDHn to be an adoption agency, which it was not. But Begum was seemingly undeterred and is described as having built a coalition of mothers to fight for the return of their children.
“Samina was incredibly brave,” says Sayrun Nisa, another mother who lives nearby and also claims her child was taken. The group of mothers that Begum had convened protested outside TDHn offices. “She knew how to make a lot of noise. She would tell us that we couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. That we had to fight to get our children back,” Nisa says.
The “boarding school scam”, as it is often referred to, is well known to those who work in international child protection. It is a simple, brutal trick played on families in desperate circumstances. “Generally, the scam works best in locations where poor parents commonly send children to a ‘boarding school’, ‘orphanage’ or similar for food, shelter and education, often where the majority of children are there temporarily – a kind of safety net for poor families,” says David M Smolin, an expert on illegal international adoption practices, who lives in Alabama.
Smolin cites examples in Nepal and Cambodia. “Sometimes the parents know the child is going to a foreign country but understand it to be a kind of study-abroad opportunity, and expect that they will have continuing contact.” He knows this because he and his wife decided to adopt two girls from India in 1998. As soon as the girls – then adolescents despite being listed as aged nine and 11 by the adoption agency – arrived, the couple realised from their agitated state that something was seriously wrong. “About six weeks after their arrival in the US, my wife and I received information from another adoptive family suggesting that the mother had not consented and that the father was not – as we had understood – dead,” Smolin says.
They discovered that the children had been taken after their mother placed them in a children’s institution for what she believed was temporary care. But it took six years for the Smolins to establish the truth. “The most shocking thing was that no one seemed to care that our adoptive daughters might have been, in effect, kidnapped,” he says. “The agency did not seem to care, the governments did not seem to care, other adoptive parents did not seem to care, and the psychologist we consulted did not seem to care. It shocked us that you could have stolen children in your home and no one would think that was a problem.”
It was only with the help of the prominent Indian activist Gita Ramaswamy that the Smolins were able to find the girls’ mother, who said that, when she discovered her children were gone and asked for them back, she was told that the orphanage had spent a lot of money on the care of the children, and named an impossible sum that would be required for her to get them back. Of course, this was not correct; but, again, without literacy, lawyers, a certain status in society, she was powerless.
“What happened to us and our daughters profoundly changed our understanding not just of adoption, but the world,” Smolin says. “We realised for the first time the depth of injustice in which some people count, and others simply do not.” The couple helped the girls reunite with their mother, and Smolin has since dedicated much of his career to exposing enforced adoption.
Nigel Cantwell has worked on international adoption for more than 30 years. He identifies the “boarding school scam” as one of a number of methods used to secure illegal adoptions. Others include falsely informing a mother their child is stillborn, obtaining consent by manipulation, falsifying documents, and straightforward abduction.
He says: “From the 1950s to the early 1970s, international adoption was driven by a humanitarian response to the perceived problems of newly decolonised countries, and to war and disaster. But then this saviour ideology was rapidly reinforced – and even overtaken – by the realisation that intercountry adoption was a means of family formation.”
International adoptions from developing countries to the west began to rise in the 70s. “The received wisdom is that there were fewer children to adopt nationally because of better access to contraception, and the diminishing stigmatisation of single mothers.” There was no effective legal framework in place. “It was the wild west,” he says. “Undocumented children were being taken across borders, their identities completely wiped out. The process was increasingly tainted by deliberately illegal, demand‑led, nasty actions.”
Adoption from Bangladesh seems to have mirrored the pattern identified by Cantwell, moving from emergency response to a business model. One horrifying element of the 1971 conflict was the use of ethnic rape as a weapon of war against Bengali women, leaving thousands of forced pregnancies in its wake.
The government responded by introducing emergency legislation that permitted late-term abortions, and the Bangladesh Abandoned Children Order, which allowed foreigners to adopt the thousands of “war babies” who had been left at orphanages around the country. In 1972, hundreds travelled to do just that, arriving in a chaotic country assembling itself from the ruins of war. Prospective parents would arrive at orphanages and pick their baby from a row of cots.
Within a few years, there were a number of charities formally organising the adoption of Bangladeshi children to foreign countries. Soon, older children were routinely available for foreign adoption, too. Adoptees were often transferred to the care of new parents with little more than a piece of paper confirming their name and orphan status. In other cases, charity workers were apparently open about making up the details of children in their care, to hurry along the bureaucratic process.
It’s hard to establish an accurate number of Bangladeshi adoptions abroad during the 1970s. Children were sent to countries including Canada, the US and the UK. Official figures show that between 1975 and 1979, 454 children were adopted in the Netherlands alone. Many, like Bibi Hasenaar, came from Tongi.
What went wrong with the Dutch adoptions during this period remains the source of major dispute between the former country director of TDHn, Moslem Ali Khan, who also worked for BIA, and the dozens of families who maintain their allegations that he and TDHn stole their children, claims that they both deny.
Several of the mothers still living in Tongi repeat these claims when interviewed for this article. One woman, now 80, says she was tricked into giving her son over to men claiming to work for TDHn, and has not seen him since. Another witness claims to have seen a truckload of children being driven away from Tongi in the summer of 1977 as parents chased the vehicle, crying. One mother claims that her newborn baby went missing weeks after she turned down men claiming to work for TDHn; that she returned from the bathroom to find the baby gone from its cot.
On a damp autumn morning in Norfolk, a wood stove burns in Dr Jack Preger’s cottage as he arranges a stack of paperwork on the kitchen table. It comprises copies of legal papers and handwritten statements that the 93-year-old has kept for nearly 50 years, despite several relocations abroad – including a sudden deportation from Bangladesh in 1979.
Born in Manchester in 1930, Preger, a self-described “nice Jewish boy”, was politically active at Oxford University, where he studied development economics, and contemplated becoming a rabbi before settling on farming and relocating to Wales. It was there, spreading manure at his hill farm, that Preger describes hearing a voice telling him to train as a doctor.
After completing his medical training in 1972, Preger heard a radio appeal for the newly independent Bangladesh, where millions of refugees needed urgent care. Again, he felt a calling, and responded, going on to establish a clinic in Dhaka.
In 1977, Preger was at work in his clinic when he heard a commotion outside. “I remember very clearly. Two women were on the road, shouting and screaming and rolling in the dust.” He went out to speak to them. “They told me they were from the Dattapara refugee camp. They said they had been offered help for their children in a children’s home in Dhaka, had been told they would be able to visit, and that when the conditions at Dattapara had improved, they could have the children back.”
Preger, who had experience working with TDHn as a doctor, says he first heard rumours of an adoption ring operated by TDHn employees in 1974, but had been “absolutely overwhelmed” by victims of the famine and floods ravaging the country and was unable to look into it.
On the day the two women appeared outside his clinic, he was with a volunteer nurse. “She asked me: ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said: ‘If I help them, I’ll be finished.’ But I did help them.”
Preger soon had a list of the names of 25 mothers, which he collected alongside a signed statement that they had all been tricked by TDHn into giving up their children with promises that they would later be returned to them. About halfway down, Samina Begum’s name appears. A note alongside it reads “Children sent abroad: one boy, one girl”.
Preger began to go public with what the mothers of Tongi had told him, first approaching TDHn itself and then the Bangladesh government. He says he contacted the Anti-Slavery Society (now Anti-Slavery International), based in the UK, but they could find no record of the complaint. He contacted the Dutch government and the British Foreign Office, and, in 1978, he got in touch with two prominent lawyers in Dhaka, husband and wife Nazmul and Sigma Huda, asking them to help him look into the claims of child trafficking.
Once Sigma Huda started digging, she, too, became convinced “something sinister” was at play and began collecting evidence. She believes that the issue goes far beyond Preger’s list; based on the testimonies she took in 1978, Huda thinks this has happened to hundreds of families.
Now 77 and still working as a lawyer in Dhaka, Huda was recently widowed after Nazmul died in February. She claims to have met numerous obstacles when trying to gather evidence of the mothers’ claims. “I was prevented from accessing any of the children’s homes or from visiting Tongi,” she recalls. “I was a young lawyer and it was my first time dealing with such a case. No one was willing to support me and I started to make a lot of enemies.” Huda says she filed a legal notice against TDHn but was forced to drop the case when she could not make progress with the mothers’ claims. TDHn said it has not seen evidence from Huda to substantiate her claims.
“It is still one of the biggest regrets of my career that I wasn’t able to help those mothers,” says Huda, who went on to become the UN’s special rapporteur on human trafficking. “To think there are hundreds of adopted Bangladeshis out there, who have no idea that their birth mothers never voluntarily gave them up. What happened to those Bangladeshi children is the very definition of trafficking.”
Preger shows us affidavits from 1986, almost a decade after the children had gone, which indicate that many of the mothers were still fighting to get their children back. On every document, they claim one man as responsible for taking their children under false pretences: Moslem Ali Khan.
Khan, also known as Manzur, was country director of TDHn in Bangladesh from 1975 to 1982, and denies all these claims. He was also working for BIA, which operated a children’s home in Dhaka called Netherlands Intercountry Child Welfare Organization (Nicwo) and oversaw adoptions to the Netherlands. According to TDHn, its building in Tongi was later used by Nicwo as a children’s home, which they believe contributed to the misconception that TDHn was involved in adoptions, despite the transfer of lease taking place after the original allegations arose.
Preger knew Khan well. According to Khan, now 76, this was because Preger had approached him for help with a children’s charity he was running and Khan declined as he had concerns about Preger’s work. According to Preger, Khan started a smear campaign against him after Preger went public with the allegations.
Nearly 50 years on, Khan and Preger maintain their claims against each other. Preger was deported from Bangladesh in 1979, when, as he describes it, he was presented with an extortionate visa fee he could not pay. He believes it was a final act to silence him.
Preger’s allegations were the subject of several investigations. In December 1979, the Bangladesh government produced a report based on interviews with those on Preger’s list, stating that the parents gave up their children voluntarily and that they knew “very well that the children will never be given back to them” and were destined for international adoption.
The report states that the parents did not want their children back and that they were “allured” to sign the statements by promises of cultivable land, cattle and other inducements, which Preger denies. The report concludes that Preger’s allegations were “false and baseless” while absolving everyone of any wrongdoing.
The mothers we meet say they were never approached by any official as part of the investigation. “This is the first time anyone has come to ask me about what happened,” says Aasia Begum, another of the mothers listed in the report. “I have never been visited by any government official. I didn’t even know an investigation had taken place.”
TDHn also investigated Preger’s claims in April 1979 and concluded they were “incorrect”. The mothers were not interviewed as part of their investigation.
In 1982, the Abandoned Children Order was repealed when a new nationalist government came to power after one of a series of military coups. The practice of allowing foreign families to adopt Bangladeshi children was banned, and Khan was even briefly imprisoned, though never charged, for his role in facilitating foreign adoptions. After his release, Khan stopped working as TDHn’s country director.
In a statement to the Guardian, Khan denied the allegations made against him in their entirety. He said he had worked for both BIA, overseeing the intercountry adoption of children, which was not illegal, and TDHn. There were, he said, many charitable organisations in Bangladesh at the relevant time dealing with such adoptions. He said his only involvement had been in signing papers on behalf of the adopted children for families in the Netherlands, and that the allegations directed at him personally were false and had been fabricated by an individual motivated by a personal vendetta. He pointed to the government inquiry in 1979, which found the allegations against him “were false and baseless”, and recorded the families as saying they had not been coerced into giving up their children, but rather had done so voluntarily for “financial, social or medical reasons”.
In the years that followed, further legal action was brought against Khan by families whose children had been adopted abroad, but he has never been convicted of any crime. Though Preger continued his attempts to get the mothers’ claims taken seriously, the case eventually drifted from public view. Everything appeared to have gone quiet; families of the missing children began to accept they would never be reunited.
But then, 40 years later, something interesting happened. A combination of social networking sites and DNA testing reignited interest in the cases. By the late 2010s, adoptees in the Netherlands began finding they had relatives in Bangladesh, and that the stories their adopted parents had been told about them being abandoned or orphans were untrue. A number of them launched legal action.
Such was the scale of the complaints, the Dutch government held an inquiry and temporarily paused all international adoptions to the Netherlands after they found evidence of “forgery of documents, child trafficking, fraud and corruption” across the system, from Bangladesh but also Brazil, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
TDHn also conducted a fresh investigation in 2019, which concluded that it was impossible to determine exactly how each adoption was established at the time.
A spokesperson for TDHn told us: “The allegations that local TDH Netherlands staff were involved in misleading parents to give up their children for adoption have never been substantiated.”
The spokesperson described Hasenaar’s account as “terrible” and the wider allegations made to the Guardian by women in Tongi as “heartbreaking”, but said “these allegations confirm that local people incorrectly perceived TDH Netherlands to be an adoption organisation”. As of 2019, TDHn has been working with and providing financial support to a charity that works to reunite adoptees with their relatives in Bangladesh.
For Bibi Hasenaar, the various investigations and inquiries are meaningless. She no longer has trust in official bodies or systems. In 2018, she filed a case against the Dutch government, TDHn and Wereldkinderen for their alleged involvement in her fraudulent adoption, but the initial judgment concluded that she had taken too long to bring her claim – despite the fact that she had only discovered the truth the year before. However, after the government inquiry in 2021, the state dropped its claim that her case breached the statute of limitations. As a result, Hasenaar is appealing, and expects a decision this autumn.
Wereldkinderen, which BIA merged with in 1983, told the Guardian they were currently involved in “judicial procedures” brought against them by Hasenaar and were unable to comment on this article until the final verdict of the court was handed down.
In April, after speaking to the Guardian, Hasenaar’s brother Abdel Kader died, just a few months after being reunited with his sister and their brother Babu in Dhaka. “I’m glad we got to see him in person for one last time,” she says. “I spent the last three hours of his life on a video call with him. He was in a coma, but I spoke to him anyway. I cried. It breaks my heart that we lost out on so much. He was the only connection we had to our birth family – now that he’s gone, it feels that has been lost, too.
“Going on this search has opened up many wounds,” Hasenaar says now. “It has been painful for both me and my family, but I have no regrets. My only wish is that I could have met my birth mother in person. But it makes me happy to know that she never gave up on me, and that her efforts weren’t in vain. I grew up thinking my mother didn’t want me, only to learn that she had been searching for me her whole life.”