A week ago 10 American Baptist missionaries were arrested in Haiti as they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the earthquake-hit country. The Americans said they were taking the "orphans" to safety in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. But they had no documents giving them custody of the children, and are now detained in Haiti on suspicion of kidnapping, trafficking and conspiracy.
The case has provoked a debate in the US on the best way to help the many thousands of children who are believed to have lost one or both parents in the January 12 earthquake. There has been a vast outpouring of sympathy in the US, with families all over the country volunteering to adopt Haitian orphans. From an American perspective, it is the most natural thing in the world to offer a child a new life to share in America's bounty. Adoption is not just a recourse for the childless: many families who have their own natural children want to take in orphans from around the world. Madonna and Angelina Jolie steal the headlines but there are many more who do it as a religious calling. You can find churches all over America where every year new children - from Asia, Russia, the Caribbean and Central America - join the congregation.
The consensus among US childcare experts is that now is not the time to be rescuing Haitian children, when their relatives may be untraceable. Some of the non-governmental organisations which have flocked to Haiti question the economics of international adoption. The US$25,000 (Dh90,000) it costs to adopt a child from Haiti could be better used, they argue, to support fostering or to sponsor a child. It now appears that most of the children were not "orphans" but had at least one living parent. Two-thirds came from a village outside the capital which, though poor, was untouched by the earthquake.
For anyone in the Islamic world, the idea of earthquake relief by adoption seems bizarre indeed. Islamic law does not recognise adoption, though there is a vigorous tradition of providing a home and education for less favoured members of the extended family. Under the principles of Islamic guardianship, the bond with the birth family is never severed and the child keeps his or her original name. The example of the Asian tsunami in 2004 is instructive. When the tidal wave hit Aceh, on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, an estimated 160,000 people were killed. Just as in Haiti, fears were expressed for an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 orphans, and there was talk of moving some to Australia for their safety. But the Indonesian government refused to allow children to be taken out of Aceh.
Today the supposed tally of tens of thousands orphans has been reduced to 5,200 who are being looked after in boarding schools in Aceh, mostly funded by well-wishers abroad. The rest have found relatives to look after them. Even some who are living in boarding schools have a surviving relative - perhaps a grandmother - with whom they are in touch but who is too ill-housed to accommodate them or too poor to afford their education.
Despite the corruption and chaos of the early days of the rescue effort, the reconstruction of Aceh is widely counted a success, thanks to a $7 billion international aid effort. Aceh is of course not Haiti; Indonesia is a dynamic country and the world's most populous Muslim state. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. But still there are lessons: the first is that the word "orphan" should be used only for a child who has lost both parents, which is rare except perhaps in parts of Africa ravaged by Aids. The second is that the Islamic solution, whereby children are, as far as possible, looked after by the family and kept in their birth culture after a natural disaster, can be made to work.
There is no denying that the motives of American adoptive families are charitable: they want to give a Haitian orphan a home. But the use of the emotive word "orphan" for a child who almost certainly has living parents is misleading. Over the past decade American families have adopted 182,000 children from around the world. This extraordinary airlift of children reached its peak in 2004 but is now in sharp decline. South Korea, a source of children since the 1950s, has set a target of 2012 to cease exporting babies. China, whose one child per couple policy has provided a ready supply of unwanted girls, is making it harder for foreigners to adopt. Russia, with its own population in catastrophic decline, is cutting back foreign adoptions. Adoption has all but stopped from Guatemala after it emerged that criminal gangs, supported by shady lawyers and corrupt officials, were stealing babies to meet the demand.
International adoption is clearly the best option for children who would otherwise languish neglected in orphanages, particularly those with some disability which can be treated or accommodated in the US. But it should be a last recourse, and not used so soon after a natural disaster. Adoptive families tend to think that their actions reduce the number of abandoned children; alas, in poor, easily corruptible countries, the reverse is often the case. The prospect of international adoption tends to increase the number of abandoned babies.
All adopted children want to know, sooner or later, where they came from. Any suggestion that they were taken from a parent who, with some outside help, could have looked after them will not help them adjust to their new country. @Email:email@example.com