Intercountry Adoption in Africa: Q&As

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 5

1. If an African child has better prospects overseas, why not allow intercountry adoption? Especially when there are an estimated 58 million African orphans.

A clear and central theme explicitly backed by the provisions of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child ACRWC, as well as statements of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, is that intercountry adoption should be used as a measure of last resort.

Intercountry Adoption may seem benign and figures of 41,000+ children might seem modest, when there are an estimated 58 million orphans in Africa. Yet, every single one of these 41,000+ is a child, and every child should have an inalienable right to be nurtured and reared in the country and culture in which the child is born.

The onus is therefore on African states to take urgent and decisive measures to strengthen families and communities to take care of children in their country of origin.

According to a 2009 report by Save the Children, over 80% of children in orphanages around the world have a living parent. In some countries the figure is as high as 98%.

Part of the recommendations provided by The African Child Policy Forum (ACPF) concerns collecting accurate data on adoptable children on the continent: The concept of “adoptable children” is not to be confused with that of “children currently in out-of-home care”, so children in institutions are not necessarily adoptable.

2. What is the evidence that Africa is a new frontier for intercountry adoption?

Intercountry adoption from African countries has increased by almost 300% in just eight years, when globally rates are at a 15 year low. Intercountry adoptions from traditional sending countries, such as in Eastern Europe and South America, have been suspended, completely shut down, or limited due in part to better regulations and controls to safeguard the rights of children. Receiving countries such as the USA have therefore turned en masse to Africa to fill the need for adoptive children. Ethiopia is now the second top sending country in the world next to China.

China established a five year waiting period for intercountry adoption, from application through to placement of a child. However Africa is not equipped to provide its children with the necessary safeguards in respect of the practice, and children are sometimes made available to potential parents in a matter of weeks.

3. Why have so few African countries signed the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption (Hague Convention)?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that one reason why only 13 African countries are signatories to the Hague Convention is the lack of capacity to put in place the necessary institutional frameworks required by the Convention.  However more countries are urged to ratify the Hague Convention as it provides various safeguards for children, particularly in addressing illegal intercountry adoption practices.

4. Which African countries have the lowest rates of intercountry adoption?

The ten African countries with the lowest rates of intercountry adoption in 2010 were: Somalia, Chad, Mozambique, Gabon, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Cape Verde, Malawi, Burundi, and Tanzania, with between one and nine intercountry adoptions each.

Of the 24 top sending countries in Africa, 2003-2010, only Liberia (see also question 5 below), Madagascar and Sierra Leone have shown significant downward trends in the number of intercountry adoptions.

Lesotho, Liberia, the Republic of Congo, Togo and Zambia are among African states which have suspended intercountry adoption at some point, due to concerns about child rights and illicit activities.

5. Which African countries have the highest rates of intercountry adoption?

The top ten African sending countries for intercountry adoption in 2009 and 2010 were: Ethiopia Nigeria, DRC, South Africa, Mali, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco, Uganda, and Burkina Faso.

Between 2000 and 2006, adoptions to the US from Liberia (see also question 4 above) increased by tenfold.

6. What does the 5th IPC, Intercountry Adoption: Alternatives and Controversies hope to achieve?

More than 21 years after the adoption of the CRC, 22 years after the adoption of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), and 19 years after the adoption of the Hague Convention, there remain a number of controversial legal issues related to intercountry adoption.

The Conference aims to:

  • exchange information and experiences on intercountry adoption.
  • promote legal and policy action in intercountry adoption, in line with the best interests of the child.
  • agree on a pan- African framework and guidelines on intercounty adoption.

7. When all but one African country has ratified the CRC, why has the convention been so ineffective in protecting children in terms of intercountry adoption?

The reporting procedure for state parties to the CRC is laid out in article 44 of the covenant which provides that  “States Parties undertake to submit to the Committee, through the Secretary-General of the United Nations, reports on the measures they have adopted which give effect to the rights recognized herein and on the progress made on the enjoyment of those rights”.

However, although the CRC is a legally binding instrument, the system does have its limitations in terms of effectively enforcing implementation of the covenant.

The initial stage of implementation is at the behest of the state, which must first ratify the CRC (only one African State, Somalia has not). Then, once a country is party to the covenant, the system requires a minimum level of voluntary cooperation by the state. However there are no effective sanctions for noncompliance with the obligations state parties have accepted.

The same issues  are reflected with the ACRWC.

8. While traditional sending countries have learned lessons and dramatically reduced intercountry adoption, how should Africa respond to intercountry adoption?

The wording of Article 21 of the CRC and Article 24 of the ACRWC contains no mandate requiring States to permit adoption, either nationally or internationally. Countries are therefore under no obligation to allow intercountry adoption as a means of alternative care.

Intercountry adoption should be used as a measure of last resort, with family-based, permanent and domestic solutions generally preferable. However there may be some circumstances when Intercountry adoption is in the best interests of the child, but only if and when all necessary steps have been taken to first try and secure appropriate care in the domestic country.

9. Instead of removing children from Africa, why do receiving countries not offer development assistance so that children can remain in their communities?

African governments should request bilateral and/or multilateral assistance for developing preventive and gatekeeping services to reduce the number of children coming into residential care facilities, and for promoting and supporting appropriate traditional informal care arrangements, in accordance with the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (UNGA, 2009).

10. How does Africa compare with other sending countries such as in Eastern Europe and South America in terms of their policies and practices?

Africa needs to look into its law, policy and practice on intercountry adoption to provide its children with the necessary safeguards.  It is important to note that just 13 African states have signed the Hague Convention which imposes provisions such as the designation of a Central Authority to deal with adoptions.

ACPF advocates for the following: prioritising community based care as a form of alternative care; facilitating kinship care, and providing a legal basis for supporting “informal adoptions” when they are in the best interests of the child.

Liberty & Humanity

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