The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that, in 2018, a record of 70.8 million people were forced to flee their homes and communities. This number exceeds the number of displaced persons during World War II and is double the number of displaced persons from a mere 20 years ago. All over the globe from Syria to South Sudan, Venezuela to Somalia, people have fled due to war, poverty, and a changing climate. Some crossing borders, others residing in makeshift camps far from their cities of origin, all whose futures are unknown.

What Is a Refugee?

Though there are millions of displaced persons worldwide, not all of these people are refugees. A refugee is defined as someone who has been forced to flee their country due to a threat of violence or persecution. Reasons for persecution might include religious beliefs, political affiliation, race, nationality, or membership of a particular social or ethnic group. The difference between a refugee, an internally displaced person (also known as IDP), and someone who flees their country due to famine, poverty, or natural disaster is that refugees have a legal status within the international community while IDPs and others who flee their countries do not.

Refugees were first recognized in the aftermath of World War I, though it was not until the Geneva Convention of 1951 that a formal document was written to outline the legal protection and rights of a refugee. It is widely recognized that every country should be responsible for the protection and well-being of its citizens. But in the case of refugees, such protection is not guaranteed (particularly since, in many cases, refugees’ own governments are their persecutors). This is why the international community has a duty to ensure that those individuals classified as refugees remain safe and protected. Though the original 1951 Geneva Convention was very European-focused, due to the aftermath of World War I and World War II, in 1967, the document was expanded to all countries. To date, approximately 145 countries have signed the 1967 Protocol.

UNHCR (also known as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) lists that 67 percent of all refugees come from five countries: Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Myanmar. Of the millions of refugees recorded in 2018, over half are children under the age of 18. The number is slightly higher if one considers the 3.5 million asylum seekers whose refugee status has yet to be confirmed. Though refugees are welcomed into many countries, the top hosting countries of 2019 are Germany, Sudan, Uganda, Pakistan, and Turkey. It is estimated that most of the refugees live in countries that are near to their country of origin, which they fled.

UNICEF (also known as the United Nations Children’s Fund) reports that one in three children living outside their country of origin are refugees. Images of children fleeing war-torn areas only to linger for months, sometimes years, in makeshift refugee camps is a difficult image to process. Children are often the hardest hit during times of violence and unrest. The trauma to children, both physically, psychologically, and emotionally cannot be denied. When viewing such a crisis, the desire to help can be overwhelming. People may think, surely providing a refugee child a warm, stable, welcoming home environment would be better than their current circumstances. One solution might be to adopt a refugee child, but the answer and the process are not that simple.

Is the Child an Orphan?

People are drawn to international adoption for a variety of reasons. Some want the opportunity to welcome another culture into their hearts and homes, others are drawn to the idea of helping a child in need. One of the cornerstones of international adoption, however, is that children available for intercountry adoption are in fact children in need of forever homes. The first thing that must be proven before a child is eligible for adoption is that the child is indeed an orphan. The U.S. Department of State defines an orphan as a child who has no parents or has a sole surviving parent who is unable to care for that child. If there is a sole surviving parent, this parent must, in writing, irrevocably release the child for emigration (to the U.S.) and adoption. To adopt a refugee child, these standards must be met. The difficulty is that refugees are born out of a time of crisis. Families flee because they are forced to do so. Refugees cross counties, cities, and borders because they feel they have no other chance at survival. During the journey, refugee families may become disbanded, some choosing to send their children ahead in advance of themselves. It is not uncommon for a child to make it to an asylum country unaccompanied. It is not that the child is an orphan. The reality is that child, and their family, are merely trying to survive an unspeakable upheaval.

To answer the question of how to adopt a refugee child, in 1995, UNHCR developed a strict policy that in a time of emergency, children are not available for adoption. This is true of both refugees and others who flee due to economic or natural disasters. When the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, adoption was not possible. Not only was the country in a state of emergency, and thus, it would be impossible to process the children’s adoptions, more importantly, there was no way to tell whether the Haitian children found had parents or not. Likewise, it is, oftentimes, impossible to ascertain if an unaccompanied minor found in an asylum country is indeed an orphan.

In times of crisis, families may become uprooted and their documents lost. This is why the UNHCR allows for a time of at least two years to complete the act of “family tracing.” During this time, the child is placed in a kind of long-term foster care within their community of fellow refugees. This policy is thought to be in the best interest of the child who has already experienced extensive trauma. To remove the child from their community, even if that community resides within a refugee camp, would cause the child further trauma. Thus, in these circumstances, the U.N. believes it best to keep children where they are until reunification with their parents can occur. In instances when the parents of the child cannot be found, the next step would be to find any other surviving members of the child’s family that might serve as a primary caregiver. If this is not possible, the next step would be to find another refugee family in the child’s immediate community who could serve as the child’s primary caregiver.

Can the Refugee Child Be Adopted?

Per Article 4 of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, of which the U.S. is a signatory, every attempt must be made to place the child in their country of origin before intercountry adoption can be considered. This means that the child in question must have been placed on a centralized adoption list within their country of origin and, despite numerous attempts, no domestic placement was ever made. Then, and only then, would the child be eligible for intercountry adoption?

To adopt a refugee child, every effort must have been made to place that child in a permanent home within their country of origin. But by the very nature of their status as refugees, refugee children have fled their country of origin. Once settled, either permanently or in makeshift camps, refugees fall under the law of their new nation. It would be unethical to return a refugee child to their country of origin, thus, if a refugee child fled Somalia to Turkey, that child would fall under the adoption laws of Turkey.

If one considers the top five refugee countries (Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Myanmar) some of those practice Shari’a (Islamic) Law. Combined with the top hosting countries (Germany, Sudan, Uganda, Pakistan, and Turkey), of which some practice Shari’a Law, many refugee children are residing in and/or originate from Shari’a Law practicing countries. This is an important distinction because Shari’a Law does not recognize the adoption of Muslim children by non-practicing Muslims. In Shari’a law, bloodlines are very important as it is through bloodlines that inheritance and patrimony are determined. This is why adoption from countries such as Egypt and Turkey to the United States is nearly impossible. In the United States, we define adoption as giving a child not born unto the adoptive parents “all the rights and privileges as if they were born to them.” This is in direct contrast to Shari’a Law.

Shari’a Law does recognize a form of adoption under the guise of long-term foster care but these matters are handled on the community level and do not occur in a court of law. For emigration to take place in the United States, a formal court of Family Law must have a hearing to rule the orphaned child is eligible to legally become the child of the adoptive parents. Once the family passes court, they are legally bound to one another and the child may be brought to the United States. But because Shari’a Law does not permit, or recognize such Family Court hearings, it is highly unusual for such adoptions, in the U.S. and Hague Convention definition of the word, to occur.

Beyond Shari’a Law, technically, it would be possible to adopt a refugee child if that child was living in Germany or even the United States, but the instances of these occurrences are very rare. For this to happen, the child would have had to emigrate to the United States, entered the U.S. foster care system, been found an orphan, and then adopted from foster care.

What You Can Do

Rather than asking how to adopt a refugee child, the question should be how to support a refugee child. In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began a program called URM. The Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program came about in response to the thousands of children in Southeast Asia who lacked permanent primary caregivers. These refugee children were identified by the United States as being eligible to emigrate and resettle in the U.S. but they needed a primary caregiver. The URM program was designed to enroll these unaccompanied refugee minors into the U.S. foster care system to ensure they received the care and services they needed. Since 1980, 13,000 children have been supported through the URM program. Today, URM has roughly 1,300 refugee minors in foster care and group homes across the United States. URM is not a foster to adopt the program. Rather, it supports unaccompanied minor refugees until reunification with their parents is possible or until another member of the child’s family is identified as a permanent caregiver.

In addition to URM, a few U.S.-based agencies provide refugee foster families. Refugees Northwest is another program that does much of the same work. Like all foster care programs, the goal of these organizations is to provide a safe, nurturing, loving environment to children who have experienced incredible upheaval and trauma. The difference in refugee foster care is that the child in care is from another country so the foster family should try to incorporate that child’s culture and country into the fabric of their family’s lives. Like traditional foster care, foster parents will receive a tax-free stipend (the amount of which is determined by the foster parents’ state of residency), financial support for things like clothing and school supplies for the child, and Medicaid and other insurance for the child.

Another way to get involved is simply to donate to and/or support one of the many organizations that work directly with refugees. UNICEF provides shelter, food, clean drinking water, clothing, access to education, and even toys and games to refugee children. Even a small donation can go a long way to making a difference in a child’s life.



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