A dramatic rise in foreign adoptions from Africa is ringing alarm bells among child advocates who worry that the soaring numbers are fuelled by financial incentives and a lack of basic safeguards.
The number of African children adopted by foreign families has nearly tripled in the past eight years. Nearly 6,350 children from Africa were adopted by foreigners in 2010, compared to less than 2,240 in 2003, according to a report released on Tuesday.
The rapid growth has been accompanied by a proliferation of adoption agencies and orphanages, even though the vast majority of "orphans" actually have at least one living parent.
Many orphanages in Africa are set up to generate profits for the owners, since they can receive up to $30,000 per adopted child, the report's author says. "They were created for financial gain," said David Mugawe, executive director of the African Child Policy Forum, which released the report Tuesday. "A lot is happening under the table."
Of the five African countries that produce the most adopted children, none has ratified the Hague Convention, the leading international treaty on protecting children from illegal adoption. And too often the adoption of African children is cloaked in secrecy, according to Mr. Mugawe.
"Some parents are illiterate, so they don't know what they are signing. They're not told the whole truth," he said. "Some are told it's just a sponsorship for their children's education, and they'll get a job and return home to help their parents. They're often told it's just foster care for some period of time."
Mr. Mugawe emphasized that many adoptions are legitimate, and many adoption agencies are good ones. But he said there is also evidence of frequent fraud, the sale and abduction of children, falsified documents, bribery, and children being removed from relatives who could care for them.
He cited the example of Ethiopia, where a number of orphanages were shut down by the government last year – and their children were promptly collected by their parents.
Canada is one of the world's five biggest adopting countries, with nearly 2,000 children adopted by Canadians from all foreign nations in 2010. Ethiopia is by far the biggest source of adopted children in Africa, and it has also become one of the biggest sources of foreign children for Canadian adoptive parents in recent years.
Canadian adoption agencies have complained about growing restrictions on adoptions from foreign countries. Fees are getting higher, waiting times are longer, and fewer children are available – especially from traditional sources such as China and Russia.
But as China and Russia impose more restrictions, many agencies are turning to Africa to fill the gap. With more than 41,000 children sent overseas in the past decade, Africa has become the "new frontier" for foreign adoption, according to the report by the African Child Policy Forum, presented at a conference in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has also become the world's second-biggest source of adopted children, and it may soon overtake China to become the biggest source.
Hollywood celebrities and pop stars such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna are among those who have adopted African children in recent years.
In some cases, African children can be adopted in a matter of weeks, compared to waiting periods of years in other countries, the report said.
Because of pressure from adopting countries, many African countries haven't introduced enough safeguards to protect their children from illegal adoptions, and often they don't make enough effort to look for informal adoption arrangements in their own countries, Mr. Mugawe said.
"Adoption can become a vast, profit-driven industry with children as the commodity," he added. "Inter-country adoption should not be taken as an easy and convenient option. It should be a last resort and an exception, rather than the normal recourse to solving the situation of children in difficult circumstances, as it seems to have now become."