Heartbreak in Ethiopia
March 23, 2011
Sit for any time in the foyer of the Hilton Hotel in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, and you'll see a procession of Americans and .Europeans wandering from their rooms across the marble floor to the restaurant or swimming pool with their precious new possessions - babies or infants they've just adopted.
I'd never really thought a great deal about international adoption until I was confronted with the scene as I checked into the hotel in September last year.
I'd arrived to film a story for ABC TV's Foreign Correspondent program about the drought-induced famine.
The longer I stayed, the more I started to think about the adopted children - where they were from and how they must feel to suddenly find themselves alone with someone whose skin colour doesn't match theirs and whose language they don't speak.
They're dressed in alien attire - a brand new Red Sox baseball cap and T-shirt with some cute and cheery foreign slogan plastered across the front - and in an environment like none they've ever seen, when just out on the street is the one they know so well, where their extended family and fellow countrymen reside.
There was something incredibly disturbing about seeing international adoption en masse. All these children about to leave their country to begin a new life in a faraway place, disconnected from their heritage and culture.
Out on the street where poverty and hardship prevail, my attitude softened. While I was filming at the produce market in Addis Ababa a little urchin appeared beside me.
She had short hair and was wearing a torn, faded dress with sash tails hanging loosely from the waist at both sides, and shoes with no laces.
Her toes exposed where the leather had worn through. She would have been about nine or 10, but she was already working; her job was to sweep up the rubbish in the markets.
"Miss," she said, "Americana?"
"No." I nodded with a smile as I rushed off to catch up with the crew.
"Where are you from?" She was at my side again.
"Australia," I replied, thinking in my ignorance that her next question would be, "Where's Australia?" But, no, she knew it was the land of the kangaroos and wanted to know if I could take her back so she could go to school.
"I would love to," I said, impressed by her request. "But unfortunately I can't." I was hoping, I must admit, that would be enough to send her and her friends back to work, but she persisted.
"Do you have any pens for me?"
"Sorry, I don't," I replied, quite surprised she was asking for pens and not, as is usually the case, money.
"What about paper? Do you have any paper for me for school?"
I didn't have anything on me because I'd been told to leave my bag in the car to avoid pickpockets. I felt terrible that I couldn't help her.
Here was this child desperate to write and learn, but instead of being at school she was dragging rotten fruit and vegetables from the mud and slush between the stalls.
What obvious potential she had. Imagine what she could achieve if I could take her back to school in Australia. Perhaps adoption is the answer, I thought to myself.
But that was an emotional reaction. It would be almost a year before I would have the chance to dwell seriously on the subject. In July I was on a plane heading back.
Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, which requires international adoptions be used only as a last resort after all domestic adoption options have been exhausted.
There is overwhelming evidence to prove it is far better for a child to remain with its family or, if that's not possible, with another family in his or her own country than to be shipped off overseas. But in Ethiopia today it seems it's not about what's best for the child, but rather meeting the demand of foreigners wanting a child.
There are more than 70 private international adoption agencies operating in Ethiopia. None of them are Australian. In Australia, international adoptions are a Government affair and strict regulations help to keep the process transparent. Almost half the agencies in Ethiopia are unregistered, some doing whatever they can to find children to satisfy the foreign market.
While there are more than 5 million legitimate orphans in Ethiopia, a large proportion of these will never be considered for international adoptions.
Foreigners prefer younger children - babies to five-year-olds. Older children or those with health problems are more difficult to pitch. So while many children languish in underfunded and overcrowded orphanages, some international adoption agencies are out spruiking in villages asking families to relinquish their children for adoption.
It's a phenomenon known as "harvesting" and it's shocking to see.
A DVD sent to families wanting to adopt by an American adoption agency, Christian World Adoption, shows one of the agency's workers in full flight surrounded by families and children in a remote community in the south of the country, where the vast majority are evangelical Christians.
"If you want your child to go to a Christian American family, you may stay. If you don't want your child to go to America, you should take your child away," she says.
The DVD goes on for some hours with the woman introducing each child offered for adoption one at a time. They sit on a bench in between her and their parents or guardians.
"Here are two brothers, but only one is available at the moment," she says for one family. For the next she tells how "it's very hard for a widow to care for her children in this culture".
"Oh no, you mustn't pick your nose," she says to a child. She then points out a rash on another's face and reassures the viewer it isn't permanent and that it can be healed with treatment. All children are asked to sing the alphabet song made famous on Sesame Street. It reeks of a new colonialism. It's hard to believe it's happening in the 21st century.
Parents are often unaware of what they're doing when they offer their children for adoption. They're led to believe they'll hear from their children regularly and their children will be well educated and eventually bring the family wealth.
But in reality, the parents and families never hear from their children and receive little information about where their children have gone. We filmed a room full of grieving mothers who gave their children for adoption after agencies promised they'd be given regular updates.
Some were even told the agency would help support their remaining children. Their stories are gut-wrenching.
No one disputes there is a real need for international adoptions, but for the sake of the children and adoptive parents there needs to be some protection from unscrupulous agencies who purport to be driven by humanitarian interests, but in reality are stuffing their pockets with dirty cash.
-Watch Foreign Correspondent on ABC1 at 8pm tonight. Read the full version of A Heartbreaking Assignment at the Foreign Correspondent website.