Globalization, advanced transportation, and favorable laws and regulations have increased the number of infants and children adopted by foreign parents. As a result, in the 21st century, intercountry adoption has become commonplace. However, while some countries open their gates to foreign adopters, others outlaw international adoption. This is what happened in Ethiopia: in 2018, the Ethiopian Parliament put a ban on international adoption. The law came into effect immediately. As a result, thousands of Ethiopian orphans have lost their chance to leave the country.
Public concerns about intercountry adoption are not entirely unsubstantiated. The Internet is full of horror stories, in which adopted parents torture, kill, or abuse their children adopted from third-world countries. However, the benefits of international adoption are much more significant. It is a great opportunity for children from developing countries like Ethiopia to become full members of the developed world; it is an excellent opportunity for middle-class couples to become parents and showcase their humility, love, and commitment to raising a happy, healthy, and self-sufficient personality.
For many years, Ethiopia was one of the target countries for families from the United States and other developed nations, who wanted to adopt a child. Reasons why couples sought adoption opportunities in Ethiopia and other African countries varied greatly. On the one hand, it was a desire to give an African child a better life in a country as developed as the U.S. It is not a secret that Africa has been going through an orphan crisis (Roby & Shaw, 2006). Foreigners who came to Africa to adopt children could play a role in alleviating this crisis and giving at least some children a chance in life. On the other hand, “most parents choose international adoption only after being repeatedly stymied by U.S. adoption protocols” (Interlandi, 2010). Adopting a child within the U.S. can be quite a journey, which few families are eager to pass. As a result, intercountry adoption becomes a win-win solution for those who want to become parents and for a country that allows one of its native-born children to live a more fulfilling life. This is how many countries treat foreign adoption.
In January 2018, Ethiopia passed a law that banned international adoption in its entirety. The law came unexpectedly for dozens of families that had plans to adopt a child in Ethiopia. However, it was not unexpected for the Ethiopian government and many nongovernment organizations that knew the terrible stories of fraud, abuse, and child trafficking carried out under the cover of international adoption. Jones (2018) shares the story of Hana Williams, a 13-year-old girl that had been adopted by U.S. parents and later died of hypothermia and starvation. Knowing that, Ethiopia was slowly but steadily tightening its adoption laws to suspend international adoption in 2017 and to ban it entirely in 2018 (Jones, 2018). The story was painful, but it was still a rare occurrence against thousands of Ethiopian children that had been taken by foreign parents. Unfortunately, Hana Williams’ tragic story revealed the pros and cons of international adoption – a subject of heated arguments that continue in different parts of the globe.
The pros of international adoption, whether it takes place in Ethiopia or elsewhere, are apparent. Basically, it is an opportunity. It is an opportunity for an orphan growing up in a resource-strapped third world country in a government-subsidized or private facility to get a more fulfilling life in a resource-rich developed world. Most of the time, it is a better world full of growth and self-development possibilities. For example, following a major natural disaster in Haiti, hundreds of local children were adopted by American and European families: more than 300 children went to live with families in France (Interlandi, 2010). No one knows what was waiting for those children in their native land – without parents, relatives, financial means, and even the basic infrastructure. The state would have never managed to provide due care to them, and this is also a benefit. Africa’s and in particular Ethiopian orphans are so numerous that the international community can help resolve this crisis. In the end, families benefit because they become parents, and children benefit because they get parents. Unfortunately, the ban on international adoption zeroes opportunities for Ethiopian children to get a better life away from their homeland.
Indeed, being away from home is an issue. Assimilation and acculturation can be challenging for African children who go to live with their mostly white parents in the west. Manipulations and legal violations may also be a problem – foreign families may use their money and influence to take children who have parents or relatives to support them at home (Interlandi, 2010). Child trafficking is the biggest concern. Still, these risks should be weighed against the benefits of intercountry adoption. A total ban on international adoption from Ethiopia can deprive thousands of orphans of a chance to find parents, increasing the burden of social costs on Ethiopian society.
In conclusion, Ethiopia has introduced a ban on international adoption, fearing manipulations, and trying to reduce the risks of human trafficking. While these risks are real, they should not justify the total ban. Intercountry adoption is a great opportunity for Ethiopian orphans, who would take advantages provided by the developed world.
Our legislative focus should not reflect an overreaction to sensational stories but rather be supported by well-researched policy considerations and priorities. The Ethiopian government and legislators should instead focus on better screening mechanisms for potential parents and encourage local adoptions. The total ban will not be a solution to our orphan crisis. With a ban in place, Ethiopia will have to carry the social burden of the orphan crisis, depriving thousands of orphans a chance to find parents, even if they have to go a thousand miles away from their homeland. It, in fact, eventually increases the number of young adults who are desperate enough to illegally migrate through the desert of Libya to end tragically in the Mediterranean Sea or some who end up in the Red Sea.
Ed.’s Note: Samuel Alemu, Esq is a partner at ILBSG, LLP. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and Addis Ababa University. Samuel has been admitted to the bar associations of New York State, United States Tax Court, and the United States Court of International Trade. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow Samuel on twitter @salemu.
Contributed by Samuel Alemu, Esq.