Policy Makers’ Attention Needed to Counter Inter-country Adoption

Source: Africa Portal

Elizabeth Willmott Harrop
July 4, 2012

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – Africa has been dubbed the new frontier for inter-country adoption, and for good reason. As traditional sending countries in Eastern Europe and Asia have tightened the supply of available children in recent years, demand has dramatically shifted to Africa.

According to the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), there are now 50 prospective adopters for every available African adoptee, and Ethiopia is only behind China in the total number of children it makes available for international adoptions. Between 2003 and 2011, more than 41,000 Africans were moved overseas – a three-fold increase over the previous eight years.

While these figures may seem small in the context of Africa’s estimated 58 million orphans, the trends were enough for government policymakers, NGOs and scholars from 20 African countries to convene at a ACPF conference on inter-country adoption in Addis Ababa in May 2012.

African officials and others are right to pay attention. According to Save the Children, over 80 percent of children in African orphanages have a living parent, just not one whocannot afford to provide for his or her child.In Ethiopia, the government recently attempted to trace the families of 385 different children from 45 different institutions. The families of all but 15 of them were located.

Seen through this lens, the African orphan crisis is largely one of insufficient family support. Officials presenting at the ACPF conference noted that there is no word for adoption in some African languages, and the concept is often misunderstood. Adoption agencies have been accused of profiting from this misconception as parents are persuaded to transfer their children into what they perceive as temporary arrangements that will provide stability and education before the child eventually returns home.

Due to increasing demand in Africa, countries across the continent now have to be wary of abusive adoption practices that have affected past sending nations. In Romania, for example, over 30,000 children were adopted in the 1990s – earning agencies over $900 million (all figures USD) but also exposing adoptees to legitimate and exploitative adopters from around the world.

Serious abuses resulting from adoptions in Africa are also well documented and the First Lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni, told the ACPF conference that inter-country adoption had facilitated trafficking for prostitution, sex slavery, organ harvesting and forced labour.The conference also heard of adoption agencies in Ethiopia accused of soliciting children directly from families, coercing women to relinquish newborns and,according to the NGO Against Child Trafficking, “parents are stated dead… dates of birth are falsified, false information is provided to the Courts”.

While Ethiopia has made progress in the past two years by placing 700,000 vulnerable children into alternative options such as community care placements and domestic adoption, Ethiopia’s story is typical of the way family reunification has been sidelined while impoverished parents are coerced into giving up their children in what has been called a “orphan creation” industry.

The finances involved in inter-country adoption provide insight into the economics of the problem. According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the United States, the world’s leading receiving country, adoption agencies charged prospective parents up to $64,000 for processing an inter-country adoption in 2011.Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the cost of a month’s rent for a poor working family in Addis Ababa is just 25 cents per month, according to a mother speaking at the ACPF conference. Likewise, the total monthly budget that would allow that mother and child to stay together as a family unit can be as little as $15 per month.

David Smolin of Samford University notes that “the ethics of inter-country adoption becomes problematic where poverty induces the family to give up their child. Under such circumstances, even the cost of transporting the child from sending to receiving nation, if spent instead to aid the family, could have kept the family intact.”

Ironically, orphanage care is also often more expensive than providing direct assistance to family and community structures. A 2004 UNICEF report containing cost comparisons in Uganda shows thatorphanagecosts run14 times higher than those for community care. Orphanages are often established by international adoption agencies, however, which make them more cost-effective in the context of the vast profits which can be made from inter-country adoption.

Despite the presence of numerous inter-country adoption agencies in Africa, a central theme of international standards such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is that foreign adoption should be used only as a measure of last resort. This principle of subsidiarity protects the child’s right to cultural identity and means domestic, family-based solutions should take precedence over international ones.

Comprehensive and well-enforced national legislation across African sending countries is therefore vital to maintain family units and connect the provision of social protection to adoption law. With these policies in place, inter-country adoption should only be applied in exceptional cases, and the need should be determined by the sending country and the best interests of the child.

As it stands, African countries are failing their children in allowing inter-country adoption to take precedence over family strengthening, depriving many of the home life they deserve. Let’s hope that policy makers heard that loud and clear in Addis Ababa.

Elizabeth Willmott Harrop is a freelance writer and consultant based in the UK. She has worked with numerous development agencies, including UNICEF, Amnesty International and Plan International.