Paper Orphans: The Implications of Shortsighted Humanitarian Assistance

By Amy Chang

Estimates from the Indian Ocean tsunami and Kashmir earthquake demonstrate that the number of orphans created by such large-scale disasters typically stands at two to three percent of death toll. Following the Haiti earthquake, however, the media released stories claiming that more than a million orphans were created by the disaster—a figure that would amount almost four times the total death toll. These exaggerated figures have won international attention, causing U.S. families to flood adoption agencies with requests for inter-country adoptions. While recognizing the good intentions of these compassionate individuals, this outpouring of sympathy has resulted in less than ideal situations: children are forced to separate from their families without being correctly identified as orphaned, either placed in orphanages or flown away to live with new families without undergoing the proper release procedure. There is an increased opportunity for child trafficking after large-scale natural disasters, as organizations find it difficult to discern actors interested in well-intentioned adoptions as opposed to those who are child smugglers.


Children displaced by the Nepal earthquake play with building blocks in a temporary classroom created at one of the 83 open spaces in the Kathmandu Valley. USAID is building classrooms and child-friendly areas to create community and restore a sense of normalcy to the lives of children and families affected by the disaster. Photo by Kashish Das Shrestha for USAID.

In the post-disaster environment, these orphans’ fate is complicated by the multitude of actors who join relief efforts. In most cases, private firms, local and international NGOs, and individuals can all contribute to multilateral and government aid efforts, despite lack of experience in the adoption process. Security is relaxed to move aid in faster, and coupled with the outpouring of sympathy from donor countries, the process of adoption may be expedited. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the United States employed the use of a “humanitarian parole” process where American families were allowed to expedite Haitian adoptions without checking to confirm that the child does not have existing kin. Family-tracing efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami have taken months, or even years, to bear fruit; yet merely two weeks after the Haiti earthquake, 33 children were found being illegally taken out of the country by Baptist missionaries. Save the Children and World Vision quickly called for a halt to adoptions after the earthquake, recognizing that sentimental stories of Haitian orphanages struggling after the disaster may have led to premature overseas adoptions – separating these children from their families forever.

The problem extends beyond mismanagement in aid organizations and donor governments. Following natural disasters, more families fall into poverty and need to make decisions on how to provide for their offspring, while orphanages receive increased international attention and funding support. The orphan industry has largely benefited from this process; they have an economic incentive to increase enrollment, as they are able to charge a fees in the adoption process and when hosting overseas volunteers. These institutions have been found to host short-term volunteers without background checks in order to increase revenues, ultimately doing more harm than good. What is more concerning is the phenomenon of child laundering—the creation of “paper orphans” with forged legal statuses. Estimates show that four out of five children living in orphanages around the world have at least one living parent, and over 90 percent of “tsunami orphans” from 2004 could have remained with their families if foreign aid was directed to help communities instead of orphanages.

The devastating impact that life in these orphanages have on children has been long established; large-scale, longitudinal research on orphanages has found that these children grow up to have altered brain anatomies, and are permanently stunted due to neglect and maltreatment. For aid agencies, however, the expansion of institutional care is an easy way to target foreign aid for clear results. In comparison, the impact of family-based aid, such as income generation and social support, is much harder to measure.

After the Nepal earthquake in 2015, disaster-relief actors seem to have recognized the danger in such impatient, numbers-driven aid efforts. Due to the existing concerns Nepal has with the proliferation of child trafficking prior to the earthquake, and as a part of the country’s larger deinstitutionalization plan to reduce the number of children living in orphanages, the Nepalese government was careful not to compromise standard procedure in the adoption process. With the lessons learned from Haiti, aid agencies have focused on the creation of “Child-Friendly Spaces”—safe spaces to house separated children with an emphasis on their psychosocial wellbeing while family tracing efforts are underway. Next Generation Nepal (NGN), for example, provides children with counseling and education in transitional homes while NGN-funded search teams travel through remote villages to find family members. After being reunited with relatives, NGN conducts regular monitoring visits to ensure the safety of these children from traffickers.

After Nepal, international appeal has cautioned against scattered efforts by suggesting well-researched monetary contributions and directing aid to more coordinated inter-agency relief efforts. To ensure the safety of children amid the post-disaster chaos, governments need to continue enforcing rigorous standards for overseas adoptions and acknowledge the time that family tracing efforts require; international media should place more caution on the rhetoric that orphanages use to garner sympathy, as displaced children are at heightened risk of child laundering; and donors should give priority to family-based initiatives, keeping in mind the long-term well-being of these children and their communities.

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