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Officials advise against international adoption

Officials advise against international adoption

By Don Melvin
Cox News Service
Friday, January 07, 2005

LONDON — They sit stunned in camps for the displaced or wander debris-strewn streets looking for food and family. Some care for younger siblings, now that their parents are dead.

People are calling them the Tsunami Generation. They are the children, the future of their countries. But what their own future holds, nobody knows.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, has estimated that 1.5 million children have been affected by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tidal waves that devastates coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

Officials say it is impossible in the chaos to know for sure how many are orphans. Some may be separated from parents with whom they will yet be reunited. But the current estimate is that 30,000 children lost both parents to the disaster.

People around the world have offered to open their homes to these children. But a debate has broken out over the merits of international adoption, with many experts saying the children will better off left in their home areas, however great the devastation.

"It's important, wherever possible, for a child to be in their country of origin, to be with their culture, their language, and also extended family," said Lucy Handford, a spokesman for the British Association for Adoption & Fostering.

For some, the waves that tore their worlds apart may be only the first of many blows that life will mete out. International officials say these children face the possibility disease, emotional disorders, and even kidnapping by traffickers eager to profit from the confusion.

Relief efforts must emphasize four basic areas "to give this devastated Tsunami Generation a fighting chance," said Carol Bellamy, UNICEF's executive director.

The children must be helped, first of all, to stay alive, Bellamy said. Those separated from their families must be cared for. They must be protected from exploitation. And they must be helped to return to school as quickly as possible, with teachers and health workers trained to spot the signs of severe trauma.

Physical health is the first priority. The quake that triggered the tsunamis was centered near the northern tip of Indonesia. But water and sanitation facilities were destroyed as far away as Somalia; officials are rushing in antibiotics and chlorination packages to try to prevent water-borne diseases.

Then there is the need for a quick return to a semblance of normality — something that experts say can ward off serious emotional problems down the road. In Indonesia's Aceh Province, the most devastated single area, UNICEF is setting up 20 centers where children can be safe — and play.

"The most important thing is for children to resume a sense of normal activity at this time," said Amanda Melville, a psychologist and child protection officer with UNICEF. "Their whole world has changed."

Still, Melville said, some portion of the Tsunami Generation will suffer from flashbacks, surges of aggression or sleep disturbances. While most will overcome these problems, between 5 percent and 10 percent are likely to suffer long-term disorders such as clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, a tendency toward harming themselves or toward substance abuse.

Although most of these children may not know it, people care. From Asia to Europe, Australia and North America, adoption agencies have reported a surge of calls asking for information on adopting tsunami orphans. The British-based Overseas Adoption helpline said it received more calls about adoption in two days than it normally gets in a week.

The governments of France and Canada are considering streamlining their immigration procedures to allow easier adoption of tsunami children.

And Indonesia's first lady, Kristiani Herawati Yudhoyono, may have contributed to the interest by announcing on television that she wanted to adopt a 13-year-old boy Acehnese boy named Mirwanda, whose parents had been killed.

But many international officials are warning against international adoptions of these children, at least at this stage. For one thing, parents may still be found alive. For another, they say, it opens the door to child trafficking in an area where it is already prevalent.

There is evidence that traffickers have begun preying on the tsunami children. UNICEF officials have received reports that 200 to 300 children from Aceh have already been "shipped out" to Jakarta, the Indonesia capital. No one knows why.

"It could have been for purely humanitarian reasons but the kids were not registered or identified," said John Budd, a spokesman for the organization in the country.

And many people in Indonesia have received the following text message on their mobile telephones: "300 orphans aged 3-10 from Aceh for adoption. All paperwork taken care of. Please state age and sex of child required."

"It was pretty shocking, because my first reaction was that this must be related to the issue of trafficking, not just adoption, because the way it was advertised was more like offering a commodity instead of a sincere request to help people," said Kendar Subroto, another spokesperson for UNICEF in Indonesia. "This could be some people making fun of the situation, or else someone is seeing this disaster as a business opportunity."

Some trafficked children may be adopted, but others may be sold as domestic help or sexual slaves, officials say.

Indonesia has now imposed a ban on children under age 16 leaving Aceh without their parents.

There are subtler risks, as well, as illustrated by Yudhoyono's attempt at adoption. When Mirwanda's older sister, Aida, saw on TV that the first lady was going to adopt her brother, she burst into tears and begged Yudhoyono to return him to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

"Please give me back my brother," she said. "He is the only one I have now. I will act as his mother and find my way to send him to school."

A government spokesman said later that the first lady had given up the attempt to adopt because the boy refused the offer.

And officials fear that international adoption, however well-meaning the people involved, could further traumatize these children.

"If a child has already lost everything, we feel there is no point in making things worse by imposing a new country, customs and language on it," said Marc Vergara, another UNICEF official.

Not that international help is unnecessary or unappreciated. Many officials are asking people who wish to adopt to contact organizations through which they can sponsor a child by making payments to make sure the child receives education and care in his or her home country.

Don Melvin's e-mail address is dmelvin(at)coxnews.com

2005 Jan 7