According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, there are 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Displacement comes as a result of violence, war, and persecution. Of that 68.5 million, 40 million are internally displaced people, 25.4 million are refugees, and 3.1 million are asylum seekers. Of the 25.4 million refugees, over half are under the age of 18.
From Syria to South Sudan, from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and from Myanmar to Somalia, worldwide we are experiencing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. According to the UNHCR, the definition of a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country due to fear of persecution, violence, or war. The distinction of persecution is an important one as it separates refugees from others who may have fled their countries due to drought, famine, or natural disasters. Many refugees follow the path of fleeing their country then residing in an asylum country in temporary accommodations in refugee camps for years, sometimes even decades, before permanent housing and residency are found.
When faced with images of children living in makeshift camps, or children fleeing violence, it is hard to deny the impact such persecution has on young people. Refugee children have experienced profound physical, emotional, and psychological trauma and, as the youngest members of their group, their status makes them the most vulnerable.
Though many people may view such a crisis and want to adopt a refugee orphan, the process is extremely complex.
Rules and Regulations
First, it is important to understand the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption. In 1990, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that every child is afforded basic human rights. These rights include the right to care and protection, the right to safe water and food, the right to a safe environment, and the right to play and rest. These rights are key as they provide the foundation from which the United Nations handles refugee children. Children who have experienced displacement due to violence or persecution have had their rights as children violated. Thus, it is important to restore these rights in any way possible.
According to the 1993 Hague Convention, of which the U.S. is a signatory, every child should have the chance to grow up in a safe family environment. In the best scenario, every child would remain in the care of their family of origin and all necessary steps would be taken to keep them there. In the instances when such care is not possible, then every attempt should be made to place the child within their country of origin. Failing that, intercountry adoption should be considered as a way to offer a permanent family to an orphaned child.
The Hague Convention is a keystone of intercountry adoption because it sets the guiding principles on how international adoptions should transpire. The first step in international adoption is to determine if the child is, in fact, an orphan. For countries, such as China, South Korea, and India, with standing intercountry adoption programs, there are systems in place through which to ensure that every adoption is completed in the most legal and ethical way possible. The difficulty when a family chooses to adopt a refugee orphan is that the child’s status of “orphan” can be extremely difficult to prove.
Is the Child an Orphan?
Refugees are born out of a time of crisis. War breaks out, violence gets worse, a new leadership comes into power and decides to persecute a particular ethnic or religious group. Individuals and families do not cross borders and seek shelter in camps because they planned to do so. They come because they have experienced an emergency moment of crisis. It is not uncommon for families to have become disbanded and/or for children to arrive unaccompanied in the asylum country. Thus, the presence of a child by themselves in a refugee camp does not necessarily mean that the child is an orphan. Their family may be in another camp or even in another asylum country. The path of a refugee is extremely fraught and complicated so the traditional process of finding a child to be an orphan cannot, and must not, be applied.
Because the factors surrounding refugees are so complex, in 1995, UNHCR developed a policy on the adoption of refugee children. The policy states that in an emergency context, refugee children are not available for adoption. Furthermore, it must be understood that children who have experienced the phenomenon of fleeing their country have been uprooted from their home and their birth country. Because refugee children are in such a heightened fragile state, the act of “family tracing” must be performed in-depth before alternative care arrangements are considered. UNHCR lists a reasonable period of at least two years during which time UNHCR will try to find the parents of the child or another surviving family member. That said, refugee situations vary by locations and the circumstances surrounding each refugee family may be different. UNHCR maintains it is impossible to say at what point a child is unequivocally an orphan and as such a “flexible approach” should be adopted. Should an immediate family member or another surviving family member not be found, the next step is to find a suitable caregiver within the child’s country of origin.
Given that the child is a refugee, this clause of the Hague Convention can be difficult to honor with respect to refugee orphans. Refugees, by their very definition, are a group of people who have fled their homeland under threat of violence and/or persecution. To send a child back to such a setting would be in direct violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, not to mention completely unethical. Thus, unless the conditions of the country of origin markedly improve, and repatriation proves possible, the next best step is to find a suitable caregiver with the child’s community within the country of asylum. Oftentimes, this comes in the form of another refugee family in the immediate community of the child.
The Convention states “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” and part of that consideration is that the child should have the chance to grow up within their own community. It is still possible to adopt a refugee orphan, but all alternatives, including long-term foster care, must be ruled out first. This is particularly true for refugee children who are Muslim as Sharīʿah Law does not recognize the adoption of Muslim children by non-Muslims. Should intercountry adoption still prove to be in the best interest of the child, then UNHCR should be invited to participate in the adoption proceedings to guarantee that the prospective adoptive parents understand the trauma the child has experienced.
Identifying the Sending Country
For prospective adoptive parents, it should be noted that to adopt a refugee orphan only occurs under very specific circumstances and very rarely. Should the refugee child be found an orphan, and be found eligible for intercountry adoption, another hurdle is the country in which the child is currently residing (otherwise known as the asylum country and, more rarely, the third party country). Under UNHCR guidelines, the country in which the refugee child has sought refuge becomes the sending country. The difficulty is that the top five refugee-hosting countries are Turkey (3.5 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (with just under 1 million). None of these countries are members of the Hague Convention. While it is not necessary for a country to be party to the Hague Convention for international adoption to take place (a notable exception being South Korea, which is not a signatory of the Hague Convention) Hague Convention status does guarantee that certain rules and regulations are followed throughout the adoption process. This is particularly important as the Hague Convention regulates adoption service expenses as well as the information related to a child’s referral.
Adoption from Turkey and Pakistan is not possible in that both countries provide no guidelines for the adoption of children. In both countries, adoption is handled on a community level and often is a matter of faith and conducted under Sharīʿah Law outside the more formal Family Court system. Because of the informality of the adoption process, such adoptions are not recognized under U.S. law and thus, the U.S. will not issue an immigration visa for the adopted child to enter the United States.
It is possible to adopt from Lebanon, but it should be noted only 135 adoptions have occurred from Lebanon to the United States in the last 20 years. This indicates that most of the adoptions likely occurred through a family member living in the United States adopting a family member who lived in Lebanon. Adoption from Iran is also possible but it should be noted that prospective adoptive parents must gain legal custody of the child in Iran, a process which takes an indeterminate amount of time. Once the adoption is complete, the family must continue to reside in Iran for a probational period of six months. Over the last 20 years, 135 adoptions have taken place from Iran to the United States. Additionally, it should be cautioned that the U.S. Department of State lists a Level 4 Threat Level in Iran with a high risk of kidnapping, arrest, and/or detention of U.S. citizens.
Adoption from Uganda is possible, but in May 2016, the Ugandan president signed into law new regulations for intercountry adoption. The regulations led to a steep decline in intercountry adoptions. Of the most difficult of the new regulations is an amendment stating that non-Ugandan prospective adoptive parents must live in Uganda for at least one year fostering the child they intend to adopt. It is possible to arrange for “proxy fostering” by Ugandan residents but this process is neither monitored nor guaranteed. It is also highly unlikely that these conditions of “proxy fostering” would apply to refugee orphans.
How Can You Help?
Even if it proves difficult to adopt a refugee orphan there are still other ways families can help. Becoming a refugee foster parent is a way to help refugee children living in the United States. Children who have entered the United States as refugees have experienced incredible trauma and loss and a supportive, safe, nurturing environment can prove critical. A few agencies specialize in connecting families with refugee orphans in need. Another way to help refugee orphans is through a program, such as Refugees Northwest Foster Care which works with foster homes and refugee camps overseas to bring children to the United States for long-term fostering. The beauty of long-term fostering is that the children are welcomed into a much-needed loving, stable environment while leaving the door open for family reunification. Most of the children eligible for the program are school age and typically between the ages of 15-18. Though adoption is not possible, fostering can prove a life-changing experience both for the child and the foster parents.
If fostering is not something your family would be open to, consider supporting refugees in other ways. There are excellent organizations, such as Save the Children and the United Nations Children’s Fund, who support refugees by providing shelter, clothing, meals, games and toys, access to education, and even tracing and reunification for families who have been separated by war. Interested in working in your immediate community? Many religious and educational institutions have become involved in the local refugee communities and offer support in the form of clothing, meals, transportation to medical appointments, and fellowship. Though it may seem like a drop in the bucket of the reported 25.4 million refugees worldwide, such small acts can make a large difference.
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