International adoption is often presented in a positive light- whether it be Olympic Champions like Maggie Mac-Neill; a Chinese adoptee who won the gold medal for Canada in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, or the families of famous A-listers like Madonna and the Jolie-Pitts, this narrative conceals a sinister reality. Kidnapping, deceit, and child trafficking are all major realities of the phenomenon, which among other factors, have led to a drastic decline in international adoption since the early 2000s. Understanding and addressing its problematical nature is not only vital for the protection of children, but also in tackling neo-colonial legacies prevailing in the world today.

Ever since the heyday of international adoption in the 1980s, a succession of scandals and controversies have arisen involving countless cases of abuse, neglect, and the exploitation of both adoptees and their biological communities. Instances where children who have been adopted under the presupposition that they are orphans but are later revealed to have living and capable parents is not uncommon. In 2017, an investigation by CNN shed light on the exploitative schemes of some inter-country adoption agencies and revealed that many biological parents had been tricked under the false pretence that their child would be sent away for educational purposes, only to be permanently adopted by a new family on the other side of the world.

Another noteworthy scandal was the attempted kidnapping of 103 Chadian children by the French charity ‘Zoe’s Arc’ in 2007. Despite the children’s unsure status and the prohibition of adoption under Muslim tradition, the charity attempted to airlift them out of Chad and smuggle them into France to be adopted. Many French and Danish families had paid thousands in advance, yet it was later revealed that most of the children had living families of their own.

Positively, there has been an increase in global caution towards international adoption, with partial or complete ban policies in countries such as Guatemala in 2007, and Ethiopia in 2018. Australia was the first country to legally address the trafficking of children in for-profit adoption agencies, with the inclusion of orphanage trafficking in its slavery bill in 2018.

However, international adoption is understood as altruistic endeavours by people innocently seeking to build families that transgress borders and must be deconstructed. The harmless and noble venture of providing a destitute child with a better life, away from their culture and community is a view that is founded on imperialism.  This is because it is structured upon the assumption that the children in their nation-states need to be ‘rescued’ from a tragic past with tragic people, and that growing up in western society is objectively better.

Advocates for international adoption often resort to UNICEF’s calculation that there are 153 million orphaned children in the world today, however, this figure is problematic.  Not only does it not take into account the loss of only one parent, but it is also driven by Eurocentrism with the 1940s ethos that centralises the importance of the nuclear family. In other words, it disregards larger family structures that are made up of multiple aunties, uncles, and other members of the community, which is the norm across many cultures.

In conclusion, understanding and deconstructing International Adoption’s problematical nature is vital for the protection of children worldwide and should be viewed only as a last resort. Adoption is already an extremely complex and difficult process, thus adding an element of race merely complicates this further.  

Lucy Anais Hansen

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