Intercountry Adoption: the African context

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 1

Africa has become the new frontier for intercountry adoption, which has increased by almost 300% in just eight years, when globally rates are at a 15 year low[1]. The top 10 sending countries in Africa are responsible for almost 90% of 41,000+ intercountry adoptions in the continent in less than 10 years.

This rise is set against a backdrop of globalisation, the shortage of adoptable children in other parts of the world, increasing poverty in Africa, weak institutional law enforcement capacity, and a lack of accurate data on adoptable children.

An increasing number of illicit activities relating to adoptions on the African continent include child selling and buying, trafficking, and improper financial gains in the context of intercountry adoption. These are a clear indication of the lack of preparedness for the number of intercountry adoption applications being received.

According to international law, intercountry adoption should be a last resort, with family-based, permanent and domestic solutions generally preferable. The onus is on African states to take urgent and decisive measures to strengthen families and communities to take care of children in their country of origin.

Ongoing efforts to educate communities and improve the socio-economic conditions of vulnerable children and their families are a necessary accompaniment to adoption law reform.

Changes in Sending Countries

  • In the past, prominent sending countries have included China, Guatemala, Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, and countries such as Romania and Ukraine in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Some of these countries have suspended, shut down, or limited intercountry adoption. China and Russia for example, have reduced the number of children that are being adopted as a result of more stringent eligibility criteria and the promotion of domestic adoption. China now has a five year wait for intercountry adoption, from application through to placement of a child (New Beginnings agency USA).
  • This international trend has increasingly directed receiving countries to look for adoptable children from African countries. Ethiopia is now ranked the second top sending country in the world next to China[2].

Sending Countries in Africa

  • Over 6,000 African children were the subject of intercountry adoption in 2010. An almost threefold increase in just seven years.
  • 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.
  • Ethiopia sent more than two-thirds of the total for all African countries in 2009 (71%) and 2010 (69%). Ethiopia has over 70 adoption agencies including 15 American adoption agencies referring children to American families.
  • The rapid increase in intercountry adoption numbers from Africa is almost entirely due to adoptions from countries that are not parties to the Hague Convention. None of the top five African countries of origin in 2011 has ratified the treaty.
  • Of the 24 top sending countries in Africa, 2003-2010, only Liberia, 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.

Receiving Countries around the World

  • The USA is the main adopting country, receiving more than 11,000 children from over 100 countries around the world in 2010.
  • Italy, France, Spain, Canada, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and Switzerland also received significant numbers of children in the form of intercountry adoption.
  • While the use of institutional care in industrialised countries has been drastically reduced due to concerns over their negative impact on child development, their numbers have been growing in many African countries, financed largely by donors in industrialised countries. However these institutions are often decried as unsuitable by receiving countries, precisely as an argument in favour of intercountry adoption.

African realities

A sound and effective alternative care option, including intercountry adoption, must be grounded firmly in an African context, taking African realities into account.

All stakeholders such as Governments, adoption service providers, receiving countries, development partners, NGOs and INGOs, faith-based organizations and the media should take these contexts into account in their work:

  • Historical, including slavery and colonialism
  • Social, including the impact of HIV/AIDS
  • Religious such as Sharia law
  • Economic, considering poverty at wider level, but also the fact that family poverty can be wrongly associated with a child needing to be adopted
  • Legal, such as the outdated legal framework
  • Cultural, such as extended family and kinship care, and children’s cultural identity which especially in the context of Africa, is an important element in defining children’s best interests.

Trends in adoption Africa

Data sources: Peter Selman (2012); Australian Inter-country Adoption Network (AICAN); Hague Convention Statistics; ISS Monthly Review N° 3-4/2011 March-April 2011, N° 9/2011 September 2011; INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION: An African Perspective report ACPF 2012

[1] Statistics compiled by Peter Helman

[2] Australian Inter-country Adoption Network

Liberty & Humanity

Up to 98% of “orphans” have a living parent

There are an estimated 58 million orphans in Africa.

However 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%: “Millions of children are unnecessarily at risk of the dangers of living in institutions, including rape, exploitation, trafficking, beatings, torture, and psychological harm”.

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