The Orphan Myth

Maria Düster | Assistant Editor of Social Sciences

Over the past decades, hundreds of thousands of citizens in western countries have adopted children from impoverished, troubled, or war-torn countries. These adoptees, though pure in intention, are often ignorant about the dark underbelly of the adoption industry and that many of the children they are adopting may not be orphans at all.

UNICEF reported in 2006 an estimated 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. However, this figure is deceptive; the organization’s definition of “orphan” includes children who have lost just one parent, either to desertion or death. Only 10 percent of the total—around 13 million children—have lost both parents. Even then, most of these children live with extended family and have support systems.

“It’s not really true,” Alexandra Yuster, a senior advisor on child protection with UNICEF, says, “that there are large numbers of infants with no homes who either will be in institutions or who need inter-country adoption.” In reality, most “orphans” are not small babies crying in derelict orphanages, but rather, older children who live with extended family and need financial support. In addition, while there is a large demand for orphans to adopt, there is not a sufficient supply. As a result, corruption finds its breeding ground.


According to UNICEF, the number of infants without homes or need inter-country adoptions is significantly smaller than what many people believe.  

Westerners are willing to pay enormous sums of money, usually ranging from fifteen to forty thousand dollars, in order to adopt a child from another country. This marks a large incentive for adoption agencies, medical facilities, and governments to use any means necessary to acquire children and sell them. These “means” usually involve fraud, bribery, and even stealing children. For example, in 2001, Americans adopted over 200 orphans less than a year old from Cambodia. However, a study by the U.S. Agency for International Development later found that there were only 132 orphans under the age of one year in Cambodia at the time. Somehow, over seventy orphans had appeared out of thin air and were adopted. In Vietnam, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw Westerners adopting thousand of Vietnamese-born children annually despite numerous reports that the children were, according to an article from Foreign Policy, “being bought, coerced, defrauded, or even kidnapped from their birth families.”

A case from 2006 involved a Guatemalan woman named Raquel Par being drugged while waiting for a bus in Guatemala City and waking to find that her one year-old baby had gone missing. Months later, Par learned her daughter had been adopted by an American couple. Though Guatemala is an extreme example, similar cases have been found in more than a dozen other countries, including Albania, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, India, Nepal, Romania, and Vietnam. Too often, orphans are “produced” by middlemen who persuade poor and uneducated villagers to send their children away, not realizing their children would be gone forever.

orphansThe worst part is that Westerners have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors. In reality, they don’t have to. Officials often take advantage of this willful ignorance to do anything to ensure supply meets demand, and adoptive parents are often left in the dark. Many countries, including the Russian Federation, have placed bans on adoption from certain countries, citing instances of abuse and corruption.

Recently, the United States has implemented and supported legislation to aid in preventing adoption fraud and loopholes, including signing the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement that seeks to prevent child trafficking for adoption purposes. Though steps have been made, there is still work to be done. Until that happens, children will continue to be commodified for Western profit.


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