What's happening to the 'tsunami orphans'?

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Until further notice, Sri Lanka has banned the adoption of children orphaned by the tsunami. Indonesian officials have also ordered police to stop children from the Aceh provinces from leaving the country. Both moves are in response to unconfirmed reports of child trafficking rings snatching refugees.

While adoption agencies in the US and Europe are getting many calls from sympathetic families, UNICEF officials here in Sri Lanka say that orphans in these extreme cases are, in general, better off being raised by relatives or members of the local community. This is especially true, they say, for children above age 3 or 4 who are cognizant of the disaster that took their parents.

Sri Lankan officials say an estimated several hundred to 1,000 children were orphaned by the tsunami, and Thursday the UN and the Sri Lankan Child Protection Authority proposed an unusual "quick fostering" of orphans - a rapid placement with family or extended family members here.

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"We are concerned with the movement of children as commodities, and so we do not support systems that allow orphans to be essentially sold," says Martin Dawes, a South Asian expert with UNICEF. "And we don't want parents that bypass the legal process, pay top dollar ... where there is no accountability by the parent or agent."

Experts agree that significant numbers of cases exist of young children placed with loving parents in foreign lands. They recommend that prospective parents recognize the responsibilities, engage in serious self-examination, use or employ only reputable agencies, and be willing to go the extra mile in a legal process.

Yet too often in a globalizing world where greater numbers have greater wealth, this is not the case. Some adults write checks for kids too quickly. They use shadowy agencies that operate only with cellphones, and fail to prepare their clients for parenting orphans. Even before the tsunami, people posing as adoptive parents took possession of orphans in order to resell them, or to keep them as household labor. "We are especially worried about this problem in Indonesia," says Mr. Dawes.

The formal legal process to adopt in Sri Lanka takes three to four years. Finding tsunami orphans here is a complex process; those not claimed by family are still being accounted for day to day in hundreds of refugee camps. One problem that predates the tsunami, local officials here say, are parents, often single, who "drop off" their kids at orphanages for anywhere from five months to five years.

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