Adopting from Africa, Saving the Children?

Intercountry adoption exposes many shortcomings in domestic and international legislation.


The veneer of philanthropy regarding intercountry adoption is beginning to fade as issues are more broadly and better understood, and a dangerous connection to child trafficking becomes more prominent. It is worrying for Africa then that it has been dubbed the ‘new frontier’ for intercountry adoption by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF). Despite global rates falling to a 15-year low, Africa has experienced with a threefold rise in intercountry adoption cases in the last eight years.

Demand outweighs supply with 50 prospective adoptersfor every available child, and between 2003 and 2011 more than 41,000 African children moved overseas. Ethiopia now ranks second only to China in the number of children that leave for intercountry adoption.

Not bereavement or abandonment but poverty

It is estimated that there are 58 million orphans on the continent. While the proportion of these adopted may be small, it is clear that the trends are significant enough for government officials from over 20 African countries to have convened at the Intercountry Adoption: Alternatives and Controversies of the ACPF Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May 2012.

What is shocking is how these orphans are characterised. According to Save the Children, over 80% of children in orphanages around the world have a living parent and most are there because their parents cannot afford to feed, clothe and educate them. In Ghana, the figure is as high as 90%. In Ethiopia, the government recently attempted to trace the families of 385 children from 45 institutions; the families of all but 15 children were located.

When seen through this lens, the African orphan crisis is more of a crisis in family support. Poverty is not a reason to remove a child from his or her parent, yet this is exactly what is driving Africans to give up their children in what they perceive are temporary arrangements which will give their children stability and an education before returning home.

The “orphan creation” industry

There is no word for adoption in most African languages and the concept is greatly misunderstood. Many African family systems have traditionally favoured informal care of children by extended family or community with no legal basis for the arrangement. Adoption agencies are accused of profiting from this misconception as parents are persuaded to sign away their children.

This is exemplified by the situation in Ethiopia. It could soon become the leading sending country in the world as adoption agencies there are accused of soliciting children directly from families. Women are coerced into relinquishing their new-borns and according to Dutch NGO Against Child Trafficking (ACT) the adoption process in Ethiopia “is riddled by fraud and other criminal activities. Parents are stated dead when they are not, dates of birth are falsified, false information is provided to the courts”.

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