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The murky world of foreign child adoption in Africa

Glory Mushinge
January 20, 2023

Four Croatian couples are on trial in Zambia for attempted child trafficking after authorities found their adoption papers to be fake. The case has put a spotlight on foreign child adoption in Africa.

A small Black child holds a sign against human trafficking
Adoption provides new hope for parents and children, but the system is prone to abuseImage: NIC BOTHMA/EPA/dpa/picture alliance

It should have been a dream come true for Damir M and his wife, Nadica; Subosic Z and his wife, Azra; Ladislav P and his wife, Aleksandr; and Noah K and his wife, Ivona. The four Croatian couples had finally adopted their children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or so they believed.

But before they could board their flight to Croatia, Zambian authorities detained the four couples, claiming the children's adoption papers were falsified. Now, all eight face child trafficking charges.

The Croatians have spent at least a month in detention since December 2020, and were only recently granted bail by a Zambian court.

DW reached out to the Zambian Immigration Department; the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services, which currently has custody of the children; and the Congolese embassy. However, none were willing to comment on the case.

EU closely following the case

The Delegation of the European Union (EU) in Zambia told DW that it has been closely monitoring the case, especially since Croatia — an EU member — does not have an embassy in Zambia.

"As an institution, we are interested in this case because it involves citizens from a European country," Elias Banda, the EU Delegation in Zambia press and information officer, said.

"In this particular case, the Croatians did not contact any member state. Instead, they decided to contact their own government, [which is] represented by an embassy in Pretoria, [which has] been in constant touch with these people," Banda said.

Discourse about foreign adoptions

The case has re-ignited the old debate about child adoptions in Africa involving Western nationals. Critics argue that in some cases the practice has facilitated child trafficking. At the same time, supporters believe adoptions help reduce the burden of feeding, clothing, and sheltering orphaned kids in institutions and families that struggle to raise their children due to poverty.

"Lately, there's been a lot of [human] trafficking cases that have been intercepted by the police, especially enroute to other countries," Josphat Njovu, executive director of Advocacy for Child Justice (ACJ) in Zambia, told DW.

Mozambique: The child trafficking hub of southern Africa

Call to strengthen laws

"It's a concern that we have as a country and also civil society organizations," Njovu said, stressing that Zambia must strengthen the laws and policies surrounding child trafficking and human trafficking.

"What we've experienced is weak border controls in some borders and some countries, and this gives opportunities to unregistered children or human beings to pass."

In 2014, the Kenyan government enacted a 20-year moratorium on intercountry adoptions, citing, among other reasons, concerns over the existing loopholes in adoption laws of local children by foreigners.

Franciscan sister holding an orphan
Many families give up their babies to orphanages for adoption due to povertyImage: Imago/robertharding

Reviewing adoption processes

At the time, the government of Kenya and the UN children agency Unicef undertook a review of the adoption process. Titled "a technical assessment of the legal provisions and practices of guardianship, foster care and adoption of children," it highlighted weaknesses in the legal process subject to manipulation and leading to the commercialization of adoptions. That, critics feared, put adopted children at risk of exploitation.

South Africa once had a ban on international adoptions, too. However, it later lifted the ban after establishing a proper legal framework in government agencies could trace the movement of adopters. With that kind of framework, the government argued, it would be easy to monitor the well-being of children after adoption.

Trucks parked next to a billboard for the Ministry of Community Development in Zambia
The Zambian government has accused the Croatian couples of child traffickingImage: Glory Mushinge/DW

Carrying out due diligence

In Zambia, all adoptions must go through an elaborate process involving more than one government organization to ensure due diligence.

"The process commences with the Ministry of Community Development," Lisuba Kabanda, a representative from the Ministry of Home Affairs, said.

"They are the ones who receive the application or the intention by a family to adopt a child, they asses that family to ensure that the family [is] able to take good care of that child."

Kabanda said once they are satisfied the family is qualified to adopt that child, the case is taken to court for an adoption to be granted.

"Then the Ministry of Community Development compiles the documentation, together with the adoption, that is given to our department for registration, for us to issue an adoption certificate, together with an abridged birth certificate," Kabanda said.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu