Adoption trade sets up shop in Africa

Pan African conference addresses emerging crisis in child rights

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

12 July 2012

This article was published in abridged form on 6 August 2012: Adopting from Africa, Saving the Children? Think Africa Press, and 4 July 2012: Policy Makers’ Attention Needed to Counter Inter-country Adoption The Africa Portal, an online knowledge resource for policy-related issues on Africa.

Intercountry adoption is viewed either as a philanthropic gesture providing a loving family and lifeline to destitute orphans in impoverished nations, or as child trafficking to meet Western demand for the right kind of adoptable child within the right timeframe.

More than ten years on from Romania’s moratorium on intercountry adoptions, imposed after tales of trafficking networks and a black market in stolen babies, debates around intercountry adoption remain as polarised as ever. Not least in Africa, dubbed the new frontier for intercountry adoption, with a threefold rise in intercountry adoption cases in eight years, despite a global 15 year low[1].

Africa accounted for 22% of worldwide intercountry adoptions in 2009, up from 5% in 2003, due to a decline in children being offered by traditional sending countries such as Russia and Guatemala. Demand outweighs supply with 50 prospective adopters for every available child[2].

Between 2003 and 2011 more than 41,000 African children moved overseas and Ethiopia now ranks second only to China in the number of children it sends for intercountry adoption. The numbers are comparable, with Ethiopia sending 4,400 children in 2010 and China 5,400.

While the number of children affected is small in the context of the estimated 58 million orphans on the continent[3], the trends are significant enough for government officials from over 20 African countries to have convened at the Africa Child Policy Forum (ACPF) Conference Intercountry Adoption: Alternatives and Controversies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May 2012.

It seems that Africa is right to be worried. According to Save the Children[4], 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[5].

When seen through this lens, the African orphan crisis is largely 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.

Illicit activities

There is no word for adoption in most African languages and the concept is greatly misunderstood, African family systems having 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.

Africa is now subject to the illicit activities faced by traditional sending countries in whose footsteps it follows. In Romania for example, 30,000 children were subject to intercountry adoption in 10 years, amounting to a turnover of $900 million[6]. Most were not orphans and were placed for intercountry adoption in what was later exposed as a ruthless industry involving the procurement of children to meet adult demand, from legitimate adopters to paedophiles[7].

Serious abuses connected with intercountry adoption are well documented and the First Lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni, addressed the ACPF conference noting that intercountry adoption has facilitated trafficking for prostitution, sex slavery rings, live organ harvesting and hard labour. In such cases she observed that “national policies were always in place and the paper work done.”

As China places further restrictions on intercountry adoptions, Ethiopia could soon become the leading sending country in the world. Yet adoption agencies there are accused of soliciting children directly from families, women are coerced into relinquishing their newborns[8] 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, whereas they are not, dates of birth are falsified, false information is provided to the Courts”.

UNICEF East and Southern Africa says that “Systemic weaknesses (in intercountry adoption) persist and enable the sale and abduction of children, coercion or manipulation of birth parents, falsification of documents and bribery.”[9]

While Ethiopia has made progress in the past two years in placing 700,000 vulnerable children into alternative care such as community placements and domestic adoption[10], her story is sadly typical of the way family reunification has been side-lined while impoverished parents are coerced into giving up their children in what is dubbed an “orphan creation” industry.

A matter of money

The finances involved give a compelling insight. According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs in the United States, adoption service providers charged prospective parents up to $64,357 for processing an intercountry adoption in 2011[11].

Meanwhile, the cost of a month’s rent for a poor but working mother and child in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is just 25c per month. The total monthly outgoings which would allow a mother and child to stay together as a family unit total $15 per month.

The mother and child in this abstract example are real people, helped by the Ethiopian artist and singer Chachi Tadesse, after she came across the mother, with two year old Hannah at her feet, working round the clock in a city car park[12].

David 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.”[13]

While in Addis Ababa attending the conference, I myself came across a four year old boy, I will call him Berihun, who was not lucky enough to be standing hungry and tired at his mother’s feet. Instead he was unaccompanied and sleeping on a piece of cardboard in the alcove of the stone gateway to Addis Ababa university, no carer or band of fellow street children at his side.

When faced with this, surely intercountry adoption, or even life in one of Africa’s hundreds of orphanages, is a better option. Indeed Ambassador Susan Jacobs, Special Advisor for Children’s Issues, US Department of State during the ACPF conference, decried the legal definition of intercountry adoption’s as a “last resort” as insulting, when US citizens are offering warm homes and families to Africa’s lost children. But this is missing the point.

Supporting families not the intercountry adoption or orphanage industries If Berihun’s family or community had been afforded a means of keeping the family together through for example mitigation of dire poverty, or the promotion of domestic adoption, such limited choices need never be on the agenda.

This is not a new solution. Jasmine Whitbread, Chief Executive Save the Children International identified in 2009 that: “Supporting families and communities so that they can look after their children themselves might seem more complicated in the short term. But in the long term, it pays enormous dividends. Not only are individual children more likely to thrive and go on to be better parents, they are more likely to contribute to their communities and to their country’s development.”[14]

However, according to Elvira Salleras, lawyer and president of Nigerian NGO Literacy, Integration and Formal Education Foundation, there are cases where family reunification is simply not possible.

In Nigeria where there is a strong belief in witchcraft, preachers, community and family members routinely name children as witches, blaming them for adverse events. Orphans or those living with a step-parent are particularly vulnerable. As a result they suffer physical or psychological violence and are driven out, attacked or killed.

Elvira comments “For children accused of witchcraft, intercountry adoption offers the only viable option for children to experience family life. The culture, especially in the southern part of Nigeria, is just too engrained, and so removing the beliefs around witches will take years and years if it happens at all. So meanwhile what happens to these children if not for intercountry adoption?”[15]

Meanwhile, there is deep criticism within Africa of the hypocrisy of donors and adoption agencies which fund institutions rather than family reunification and protection, and then decry institutional care as a reason for intercountry adoption.

This is exacerbated by pressure from receiving countries including political lobbying and prospective parents making down payments to adoption agencies, before the sending country has even identified children needing intercountry adoption: “They consider the sheer registration as prospective adopter, gives a right to have a child”[16].

Eight million children are known to be living in orphanages around the world, the actual number is likely much higher as many institutions are not registered[17]. A 2009 study by Ghana’s Social Welfare Department for example, revealed that 140 of the country’s 148 orphanages were un-licensed. UNICEF commented at the time that running an orphanage in Ghana was a highly lucrative and profitable venture[18].

Ironically, orphanage care is more expensive than providing direct assistance to existing family and community structures. UNICEF notes that institutional care is six times more expensive than foster care and cost comparisons in Uganda show orphanage care to be 14 times higher than those for community care[19]. Orphanages are often established as part of the presence of an international adoption agency[20], but in this context are perhaps cost-effective in the context of the vast profits which can be made from intercountry adoption.

The USA as sender and receiver

It is not only African states which are failing African children. While Ambassador Jacobs sees intercountry adoption in simplistic terms of American parents helping African children, as the top receiving country for world intercountry adoptions, the USA’s copy book is far from blot free.

Law Professor David Smolin, started campaigning on intercountry adoption when his two daughters adopted from India were found to have been stolen from their birth family – something the US adoption agency and US authorities did nothing about despite repeated calls for action[21].

Meanwhile 30 year old Kairi Shepherd was just three months old when she adopted from an orphanage in India, however she is now under a threat of deportation from the USA as she was never made a US citizen[22].

There are tens of thousands of children available for adoption in the USA and it is also a sending country, having sent 73 American children overseas to 10 countries in 2011[23]. This is particularly pertinent in light of a significant number of cases of intercountry adoption gone wrong, where children brought from overseas end up in US state care.

For 2011, the US Bureau of Consular Affairs reports “33 cases of disruptions and dissolutions involving 41 children who were adopted from other countries and entered state custody as a result”. Reasons given for disruption include “Change of family circumstances” and “Difficulty with the family”[24].

The Council of Europe notes “drug-taking, suicide attempts and teenage crises – encountered by foreign children adopted during the international adoption boom in the 1980s, and the despair that parents experience when caught unawares by the consequences of their children’s lack of roots”[25].

Interestingly the USA does not count children trafficked through international adoption in its trafficking statistics which include only labour and sex trafficking[26].

Legislation lacking

While African states largely fail to address the issue of domestic adoption in their legislation let alone intercountry adoption, international child rights law contains explicit measures including articles 20 and 21 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), article 24 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) and the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Convention).

The Hague Convention prohibits independent or private adoptions only allowing “accredited bodies” to perform tasks relating to intercountry adoption and then only on a non-profit basis. The UNICEF Office of Research notes that “abuses are especially prevalent in ‘private adoptions’.”[27]

However, they are commonplace for many African countries of origin, only 13 of which have ratified the Hague Convention. Worryingly, both France and the USA allow independent adoptions from non-Hague countries even though they are themselves signatories to the Hague Convention[28]. The ACPF observes that “over 220 African children were adopted “independently” to France in 2011, and thus with scant guarantees of a principled process”[29].

A clear and central theme of international standards is that intercountry adoption is not mandatory and should be used 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.  So, while there may be some circumstances when intercountry adoption is in the best interests of the child, this can only be determined if and when all necessary steps have been taken to secure appropriate care in the child’s country of origin.

Robust and comprehensive national legislation is therefore vital (but currently lacking) in order to maintain family life and join the dots between the provision of social protection measures and adoption law.

With family protection measures in place, intercountry adoption should only be applied in exceptional cases, the need determined by the sending not receiving country, and always according to the best interests of the child. Africa is currently failing its children in allowing intercountry adoption to take precedence over family reunification and family strengthening and in allowing receiving countries to dictate the terms under which Africa’s children find the homes they deserve.

There is much to be done. As Benyam Dawit Mezmur, Vice-Chair of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, noted at the close of the ACPF conference: “Africa loves its children. But love is not a noun, it’s a verb. It requires action.”


[1] All statistics unless otherwise stated from Dr Peter Selman and Africa Child Policy Forum. See for example and

[2] Council of Europe International adoption: respecting children’s rights, 1999

[3] UNICEF The State of the World’s Children 2012

[4] Save the Children: Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care, November 2009

[5] Comments by H.E. Mrs Zenebu Tadesse, Minister of Women, Children and Youth Affairs, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia at the ACPF Conference Intercountry Adoption: Alternatives and Controversies 29 and 30 May 2012.


[7] See for example the book Romania For Export Only by Roelie Post, published by Hoekstra

[8] Schuster Institute

[9] UNICEF East and Southern Africa Media Centre,

[10] Tadesse op. cit.

[11] US Department of State, FY 2011 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoption November 2011

[12] Comments by Chachi Tadesse at ACPF conference May 2012 and subsequent interview with the author

[13] 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 2005

[14] Save the Children op. cit.

[15] Comments by Elvira Salleras at ACPF conference May 2012 and subsequent correspondence with the author

[16] Post, op. cit.

[17] Save the Children op. cit.

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


[20] See for example the ACPF video An Uncertain Journey which featured the Christian World Adoption agency and its associated orphanage in Uganda

[21] David Smolin’s blog

[22] Times of India, India calls for US compassion in deportation case 26 May 2012

[23] US Department of State op. cit.

[24] Ibid

[25] Council of Europe op. cit.

[26] Comments by Ambassador Susan Jacobs, Special Advisor for Children’s Issues, US Department of State at ACPF conference May 2012

[27] UNICEF innocenti digest Intercountry Adoption 1998

[28] Jacobs op. cit and Ambassador Thierry Frayssé, Head of Intercountry Adoption Service, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, France speaking at the ACPF conference May 2012

[29] Intercountry Adoption An African Perspective, ACPF, May 2012

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