Haiti Q&A: The ethics of disaster adoption

Q. How many orphans are there in Haiti?

A. There were already about 380,000 orphaned children in Haiti before the earthquake. The Caribbean island, which has a population of about 10 million, may now have more than a million children without parents.

Q. Could any of them be evacuated to safety, or even to a better life abroad?

A. Adoption agencies around the world have been flooded by enquiries from the public about adopting Haitian orphans. The Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS), a US advocacy organisation, says it has received 150 enquiries about Haitian adoption in the past three days, compared with about 10 a month usually. Some children – who were already in the final stages of being adopted by overseas parents when the quake struck – have already been airlifted out of Haiti, and the US has eased restrictions as a humanitarian gesture, as have France and Canada.

A chartered Dutch plane will arrive in Haiti today to airlift 109 more children, most of whom have already been matched with families in the Netherlands but whose adoptions have now been fast-tracked. Meanwhile, 53 orphans have already been flown to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Indiana-based Kids Alive International, which runs orphanages around the world, is expected to take 50 Haitian orphans to group homes in the Dominican Republic. The Catholic Church in Miami has asked the US government to allow thousands of orphaned Haitians to settle in America, in a scheme modelled on an initiative for Cuba, Operation Pedro Pan, in the Sixties. Under that scheme, 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children, offspring of parents who opposed Fidel Castro's government, began new lives in the US.

Q. Is it ethical to relocate children from disaster zones?

A. There are honourable precedents such as the Kindertransport programme during the Second World War, which saved 10,000 Jewish children by bringing them from Nazi Germany to Britain. But children's advocacy groups warn against mass airlifts of youngsters overseas in the wake of natural disasters. They cite the 2004 tsunami and the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, arguing that the clamour surrounding children created a legal and ethical free-for-all.

Given the chaotic state of communications in Haiti right now, a big fear is that some children may be shipped overseas without proper checks to see if any extended family members are alive.

As for the impact on small children, some experts believe foreign adoptions, or being taken into care in an unfamiliar environment, could be psychologically traumatic. SOS Children's Villages, the children's charity has issued a warning that uprooting children in such situations can be stressful and unsettling, and lead to long-term psychological problems for infants who are expected to grow up in an alien culture.

"When you see any child who has lost their family on the news, your natural instinct is to want to go and pick them up and cherish them," it said. "Sometimes international adoption is the right solution for a child, but far more often it is not."

Adoption expert Professor René Hoksbergen, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, also warns that the hurried evacuation of children may send the wrong signal, encouraging people to assume that children in chaotic situations can be easily relocated. Some of the children evacuated from Cuba under Operation Pedro Pan ended up stranded in remote parts of the US, far from other Cubans, and have since spoken of how the experience scarred them.

Q. Is there a better way?

A. Charities argue that it is more important to register all children, trace any extended family members, and work to rebuild the country rather than removing youngsters from their homeland. Unicef says its priority is to ensure that children affected by the earthquake get the help they need. "While both airlifts and new adoptions are based on valid concerns and come from an obviously loving heart, neither option is considered viable by any credible child welfare organisation," says the JCICS. "Bringing children into the US either by airlift or new adoption during a time of national emergency can open the door for fraud, abuse and trafficking."

Sarah Cassidy