Intercountry Adoption: Illicit Activities

by Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

29 May 2012

Fifth International Policy Conference on the African Child
Intercountry Adoption: Alternatives and Controversies
29-30 May 2012, United Nations Conference Centre Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Fact Sheet 4

Too many African parents have been coerced or manipulated into giving up their children, and substitute carers have similarly surrendered children under unethical or illicit conditions. Some governments have also undermined their legal and moral obligation and, therefore, their regulatory or supervisory duties against the behaviours of unscrupulous agents. Children have been turned into commodities in the greying and increasingly amoral world of intercountry adoption.

  • UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa says of intercountry adoption that “Systemic weaknesses persist and enable the sale and abduction of children, coercion or manipulation of birth parents, falsification of documents and bribery”[1].
  • In April 2012, the Sierra Leone government reopened an investigation into the 1997 illegal overseas adoptions of children during the country’s civil war. The “orphans” all had living parents who campaigned for over a decade for the return of their children[2].
  • While speaking at the 2009 Regional consultative meeting on inter-country adoption in Nairobi, Justice Koome noted that many illegal adoptions have been made in Kenya without due jurisdiction[3].
  • In Ethiopia there are stories of adopted children or their Ethiopian families believing they were going overseas to get an education and would return home. Adoption agencies are accused of soliciting children directly from families and women are coerced to relinquish their newborns[4].
  • In 2007, Lesotho suspended intercountry adoptions after evidence came to light of illicit practices.
  • Liberia introduced a moratorium on intercountry adoption in 2009 as a result of long-standing allegations of corruption in the adoption procedure as a whole, and a 2007 report by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) that “confirmed that many illegal overseas adoptions were taking place through orphanages, facilitated by weak Government adoption procedures”[5]
  • The Republic of Congo announced the suspension of intercountry adoption after the attempted illegal export of children from Chad to France in 2007. When Congo’s ban was lifted 4 months later, an official reportedly noted that: “Many times in the past adoptions were not in accordance with the rules. There were many things that were done that were not in the interest of the adopted children.”[6]

Children in the hands of profiteers

The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Convention) seeks to establishes “a system of cooperation among Contracting States to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children”. Importantly, it implicitly prohibits adoptions that are carried out independently – since all prospective adopters have to work through their Central Authority or an accredited agency – as well as outlawing any “improper or other financial gain”.

Financial issues constitute a major obstacle to ensuring that intercountry adoptions are carried out in an ethical manner and, in particular, that children are not brought into the process because of the potential financial gain that they represent than because they truly need adoption abroad.

As David M. Smolin of Cumberland Law School, Samford University notes “The ethics of intercountry 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.”[7]

Yet thousands of dollars of fees are paid in Africa whenever a child is the subject of intercountry adoption. Adoption agencies charge their clients fees such as “In-country fees”, “ contribution to “child care”, “humanitarian aid projects” or similar as part of the global fees paid to adoption agencies.

A 2009 study by Ghana’s Social Welfare Department revealed that 90 per cent of the 4,500 children in orphanages are not orphans, meanwhile 140 of the country’s 148 orphanages were un-licensed. A UNICEF spokesperson commented “Running an orphanage in Ghana has become a business enterprise, a highly lucrative and profitable venture… Children’s welfare at these orphanages has become secondary to the profit motive.”[8]

Rapid Rises in Adoption Rates

Once the numbers of international adoptions begin to rise, the dangers increase. Official services and the judiciary will quickly be overwhelmed. A rapid increase may indicate that there are legislative and/or procedural loopholes or inadequacies, in addition to lack of policy, enabling an uncontrolled and probably unwarranted number of intercountry adoptions to take place. Finally, it may reflect a situation where special relationships are being formed between agencies and residential care facilities or other “intermediaries” in order to identify – and in the worst cases procure – an ever-increasing number of children for intercountry adoption.

  • Between 2003 and 2006, intercountry adoptions from Liberia to the US increased thirteen-fold to 353, leading to concerns for child welfare and a moratorium imposed in 2008.
  • In less than 10 years, intercountry adoptions in Ethiopia rose from 500 to 4,565 by 2009, raising serious concerns and new limits on the number of cases that can be processed.
  • Adoptions to the USA from Uganda jumped by over 300% in 2011, with 95% being finalised in the USA, circumventing proper procedures in Uganda.

A frequently cited risk factor for illicit activities is the adoption of young babies by foreigners, in simple terms because demand leads supply. There is a correlation between high rates of intercountry adoption and the low ages of children adopted.

The way adoptions have evolved recently from the DRC to the USA is particularly telling. When there were very few – just nine in 2008 – most (6) involved children over the age of 3 years. But as intercountry adoptions escalated, children got dramatically younger. According to 2011 figures, two-thirds of the 133 children adopted to the USA were aged 2 years or under, with 36% (48) of the overall total aged 12 months or less.

Situations such as these beg the question as to how the subsidiarity principle can have been properly respected (intercountry adoption as a “last resort”), and all aspects of the subsequent procedure carried out, for a baby whose adoption abroad is completed before he/she reaches the age of one at the very least.

[1] UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Media Centre,

[2] Sierra Leone Parents Support Adoption Inquiry, ABC News, 8 May 2012 and The Stolen Makeni Children:-A court finds that the adoptees from Sierre Leone were in fact kidnapped, This is Sierra Leone, 11 May 2012

[3] Africa Wide Movement for Children

[4] The Shuster Institute, Adoption: Ethiopia

[5] UN News Centre, 28 March 2007:

[6] IRIN, 5 March 2008.

[7] Child Laundering: How the Intercountry Adoption System Legitimizes and Incentivizes the Practices of Buying, Trafficking, Kidnapping, and Stealing Children, David M. Smolin, Cumberland Law School, Samford University

[8] WEST AFRICA: Protecting children from orphan-dealers, IRIN 27 May 2009


Liberty & Humanity

Child trafficking

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. This 2002 estimate has become a global standard but is likely to have increased significantly in the past decade.

The US Department of Health and Human Services Human Trafficking fact sheet 2006 claims trafficking is the fastest growing, and second most lucrative criminal operation in the world, on a par with the arms trade, and second only to the illegal drugs industry.

UNICEF’s 1998 Innocenti Digest on Intercountry Adoption notes that the trafficking of children for overseas adoption involves large networks of individuals “who can range from ‘spotters’ on the lookout for pregnant girls; to hospital personnel, doctors and midwives; to birth registrars, lawyers and passport and visa officials. This long chain of corruption can extend to receiving countries, where intermediaries are available to place the trafficked children.”

Read all fact sheets in the series:

  1. Intercountry Adoption: the African context
  2. Intercountry Adoption: Legal frameworks
  3. Intercountry Adoption: Recommendations for protecting Africa’s children
  4. Intercountry Adoption: Illicit Activities
  5. Intercountry Adoption in Africa: Q&As