A generation of Europeans is now returning to Sri Lanka, a country from which they were adopted as children, to search for their birth mothers. What they learn about their families, and themselves, has deep consequences:

A shady network of hospital employees, court clerks, lawyers and social workers lubricated the baby pipeline to the West. In many cases papers were swapped, birth records were fudged and misleading information given to both birth and adoptive parents. Another aspect of this unregulated system were “acting mothers”: women hired to formalise an adoption in court without the birth mother present.

These duplicities have come to light in the last few years, complicating searches and feelings of selfhood. “A lot of adoptees feel very abandoned and they are dealing with a lot of grief and mental illness,” said Mirjam Bina de Boer, an Indian adoptee in the Netherlands, who runs a counselling service. “Some people feel disconnected with themselves and their families. We see a lot of suicides in the adoptee community.”

Not all adoptees want to find their birth families, and not all birth mothers want to be found. For many South Asian women, there are privacy concerns, or social stigmas around pregnancies out of wedlock. Searching can be tedious, expensive and draining. Even for the lucky ones that achieve a happy first meeting, other kinds of demons lurk on the other side of knowing.