“There is no lonelier place in this universe than around the bed of a wounded child who has no more family to look after them,” posted Ghassan Abu Sittah, a British-Palestinian doctor who treated civilians in Gaza. He told the BBC, “about 40% of the wounded people being brought to hospital were children” and “every day we have these cases where we are told this is the only surviving family member.”
Conversations around international adoption have increased out of concern for these children. A petition on Change.org to “Facilitate Adoption of Orphaned Refugee Children from Gaza, Palestine” received signatures from 10,718 supporters. “Current adoption laws and regulations make it difficult for potential adoptive parents to navigate the process,” wrote the organizer, “We urge governments worldwide to facilitate this process by easing restrictions while ensuring child safety remains paramount.”
United Nations human rights expert Francesca Albanese recently warned that “Palestinians are in grave danger of mass ethnic cleansing” and urged the international community to mediate a ceasefire in the occupied Palestinian territory. The practice of transcultural adoption is an underexamined form of ethnic cleansing masquerading as humanitarianism.
The UN defines ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” It is often used to describe the massacre and forcible removal of Indigenous people by European settlers in the Americas. In 1978, Congress found that “public and private agencies had taken hundreds of thousands of American Indian children from their homes, sometimes by force” and “placed the children in institutions or with families that had no tribal connections.”
In response, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) “established minimum federal standards for removing native children from their families and required state courts to notify tribes when an American Indian child is removed from his or her home outside of a reservation.” Last June, the Supreme Court upheld ICWA after a challenge from the state of Texas and non-Native foster parents who “challenged the preferences as an infringement on state authority in child welfare policy and unlawful discrimination on the basis of race.”
Tribal leaders said “the law is critical to keeping their cultures alive and protecting their sovereignty as independent nations.” ICWA is reminiscent of the term ‘Kafala’ in Islamic law, which is used to describe a situation similar to adoption, but without the severing of family ties, the transference of inheritance rights, or the change of the child’s family name,” according to Better Care Network.
In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers released a Position Statement on Trans-Racial adoptions which likened the practice to “cultural genocide.” As a Korean adoptee, I deeply understand this painful erasure. My homeland “has the world’s largest diaspora of intercountry adoptees, with more foreign adoptions overall than any other nation.” Korea shares Palestine’s history of occupation and Western-supported militarization. After gaining independence from Japan, it was divided by the United States and Soviet Union who supported the South and North respectively. The Korean War displaced millions of people, including children. A special act of Congress allowed Bertha and Harry Holt, white evangelical Christian farmers from Oregon, to adopt eight Korean War orphans. They became “pioneers of international adoptions.” Since the end of the war, an estimated total of 169,483 South Koreans were adopted by overseas parents.
Kathryn Joyce, author of “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption,” says “American evangelicals became one of the most powerful forces in international adoption.” According to the Rudd Adoption Research Program at The University of Massachusetts Amherst, “All of the top 10 receiving countries in global intercountry adoption are populated by White people / Western Europeans, whereas the top sending countries are primarily countries whose populations are dominated by people of color.”
The #FamiliesBelongTogether movement, during the height of Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy in 2018, highlighted similarities between pro-adoption and anti-immigration rhetoric. Both are predicated on biased assumptions about who is more deserving of the right to parent. White prospective adoptive parents are seen as charitable saviors while dehumanizing references of migrant parents as abusive or criminal helped justify the practice of family separation. Right-wing media outlets have used similar language to describe Palestinians. Dehumanization is included in the Ten Stages of Genocide and “used to make the victims seem like villains.”
Proposing adoption as a solution to care for Palestinian children left without surviving family members is its own form of ethnic cleansing. Any alternative family care or guardianship options should be considered first in accordance with the child’s faith and cultural traditions (ie Kafala). Yet, to truly “save” the children of Palestine, we must not ignore the root causes— the State of Israel’s ongoing violence and apartheid— that render them orphaned or displaced.
Instead of petitioning against the “current adoption laws that make it difficult for potential adoptive parents to navigate the process,” we should advocate for an end to the current genocidal practices that make it difficult for Palestinian families to live.