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home :: abduction politics :: a critique of intercountry adoption

A Critique of Intercountry Adoption


What is fundamentally wrong with intercountry adoption is that white Westerners adopt children, while non-whites in non-Western countries relinquish and supply those children. Intercountry adoption is in other words a one-way traffic and not an equal exchange of children in need between countries. Since its beginning after World War II when the supply of working-class children for domestic adoption started to run short, intercountry adoption has been the last resort to have a child for infertile couples belonging to the elite who feel a strong social pressure to fulfill the standard of the nuclear family. Intercountry adoption is widely perceived as a progressive and anti-racist act of rescuing a non-white child from the miseries of the Third World, something which legitimizes the practice in the first place. Besides, the bizarre situation is loaded with demands of loyalty, guilt and gratefulness as the wealthiest of the rich in the receiving countries adopt the most shunned and unwanted in the Third World.

Historical prerequisites

Before World War II, no Westerner thought about adopting a non-white child. Racism was the order of the day of the colonial world order in a time when the West ruled the world. Before the war, different humanitarian organizations actually tried to place Jewish refugee children from Central Europe as a part of the Kindertransport into Swedish homes. Today we can read about the difficulties in placing those children through letters preserved at the National Archive of Sweden: "We don't want Jewish children. Aren't there any Aryan children?"

How could Westerners be prepared to adopt "non-Aryan" children from Korea already at the beginning of the 1950s? The answers are the Holocaust and de-colonization. The scope of the Holocaust created such a shock that the West was forced to change its worldview. The West realized that the Holocaust couldn't just be a German deed, and that instead all Western countries were "guilty" after 2,000 years of Anti-Semitism. The West went from open racism to the idea of equality for all races, at least theoretically. This idea destroyed the world order having dominated the last 500 years: that the West had the right to conquer, exterminate and rule over non-white people. De-colonization was followed by violent conflicts, and the first intercountry adoptees soon started to arrive.

The Korean and Swedish cases

The Korean War was not just a Korean war. It was a cynical and dirty war between the super powers that happened to take place on the Korean peninsula as two Korean states were dominated by two Western powers as pawns in the game. 3.5 million Koreans were killed on both sides representing over 10 percent of the population. The Korean War is considered one of the bloodiest in history considering the limitation in time and in geography, and the losses correspond to one fifth of the global war casualties since World War II.

During the years of war, soldiers from the UN-army started to adopt children. The UN-army contained most of the countries which would adopt the majority of the Korean children: Australia, Canada, Luxemburg, United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Witnesses describe the Korean War as something close to genocide. The UN-soldiers killed tens of thousands of Koreans on both sides indiscriminately, and it is also important to bear in mind that almost all of the first Korean adoptees were products of unequal relations between UN-soldiers and Korean women.

The same pattern followed in other countries. De-colonized countries like India and Ethiopia became supplying countries as a consequence of international aid efforts. Especially in East Asia, dominating intercountry adoption as a region, the Korean situation became the standard. Wars and catastrophes in countries like Vietnam and Thailand resulted in intercountry adoption from those countries. Worth noting is also that many leading supplying countries in the field of intercountry adoption fall under America's sphere of influence or have been subjected to American warfare: Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines in Asia, and Colombia, Chile and Guatemala in South America.

Sweden played an important role everywhere. The result is that Sweden has brought in the largest number of adoptees among all Western countries in relation to the native population: almost 45,000 from 130 different countries. After a pro-Nazi war history and a long tradition of race thinking, self-righteous Sweden after 1945 wanted to be the paradise for human rights, democracy and anti-racism. Another less idealistic motive worth mentioning was the sudden disappearance of adoptable Swedish children during the decade as a result of rapid economic growth and a high participation of women in the labor force, as well as the development of an advanced social welfare system. Even more important is Sweden's self image as the world's most democratic country, a self-image recently challenged by the sudden appearance of a vigorous National Socialist movement and racism towards non-Western immigrants including adoptees. Intercountry adoption is in Sweden nothing else but a national project to uphold the country's self-image.

For countries like Korea, the almost insatiable demand for children has created huge social problems. Intercountry adoption has destroyed all attempts to develop an internal social welfare system, and the position of the Korean woman has remained unchanged. The Swedes have been forced to accept unwed mothers for a long time, but in Korea the children born out-of-wedlock instead disappeared abroad. In the 1970s, during the golden days of Korean adoption when Korean children like pets and mascots became status symbols among progressive whites, the pressure was enormous on Korea to find adoptable children. Temporarily relinquished children at institutions and those who simply got lost from their parents on the streets disappeared forever from the country. Intercountry adoption was also linked to the amount of money Western organizations gave to the institutions: as more children delivered, as more money received.

The consequences of intercountry adoption for supplying countries in terms of a national trauma and destroyed lives for the biological parents are today obvious in a country like Korea, the country in the world which has sent away the largest number of children: more than 150,000 in 15 Western countries. Interestingly, Swedish documentaries on intercountry adoption are always focusing on the "positive" side, while the equivalents in Korea always focus on "negative" aspects.

"In the best interest of the child"

The expression "in the best interest of the child" is used as a mantra by intercountry adoption proponents. It is a fact that intercountry adoption has always worked for the interests of adoptive parents and receiving countries, never for the interests of adopted children or supplying countries. If it would have been "in the best interest of the child", then siblings would never have been separated, and every adoptive parent would have been forced to travel to the supplying country and pick up the child and at least tried to learn something of the child's language and culture.

In 1969, during a visit to Sweden, the former adoption agency SWS' director Mr. Tahk said the following considering "in the best interest of the child": "We have to realize that Korea is not forced to give away children for adoption. We have to think about the children in the first place, not the parents. It would be better to find individual homes in Korea for these children, that is sponsoring activities." The last method is apparently considered to be "in the best interest of the child" for white children in the West: the Swedish foster children are not adoptable at all. Swedish and Korean children are simply not treated as equals.

Adoptive parents have the right to choose between age, country, race, handicap et cetera. The fact that some countries have been favorites for adoptive parents says a lot about how much race thinking still continue to live on under the anti-racist surface. Korea in Asia, Ethiopia in Africa and Colombia in Latin America are countries whose children more easily can pass as whites compared to other countries in the same regions. Compare children from Korea to children from Malaysia, children from Ethiopia to children from Nigeria and children from Colombia to children from Bolivia. Furthermore, Swedish adoptive parents seem to have a clear preference for girls and "racially pure" children. Non-white girls are probably less threatening, especially for infertile men, and the last preference is nothing else but racism.

A paternalistic and neo-colonial thinking consider us adoptees to be eternal children. We are forced into an identity as adopted children, not as adults. At the same time we are the children of the whole Swedish society more than any immigrant ever can be. And first and foremost we are Swedes, we are not allowed to explore our ethnic origin. In spite of this total lack of respect and integrity towards the adopted child, the adoptive family continues to act "mother, father and child" even if this social anomaly never will develop into a biological relationship. Is it a right to have children? Is it a right to take others' children? Only a privileged white middle-class person answers yes on these questions.

Parallels to the slave trade

The West has a long tradition of uprooting non-whites and transporting them involuntarily to their own countries and for their own purposes. Hundreds of thousands of non-whites, especially Africans, were transported to the Americas to satisfy the need for manpower. Nowadays hundreds of thousands of non-whites, especially East Asians, are transported to the West to satisfy the needs of infertile white middle-class couples. The message of intercountry adoption ideology is clearly that life in the West is the best, and that the West has the right to adopt children from non-Western countries in the name of paternalistic humanism and materialistic superiority, something which reminds of the pro-slavery arguments from the 19th century �| by leaving war-stricken and impoverished West Africa the slaves were considered given a better life in the New World.

Contemporary intercountry adoption having flown in close to half a million Third World children to the West during a period of half a century has many parallels to the Atlantic slave trade which between 1440-1870 shipped 11 million Africans to America, and to indentured labor dispatching 12 million Indians and Chinese to the European empires between 1834-1922. However, a crucial difference is of course that slave trade and indentured labor belong to history and are today almost universally condemned, while intercountry adoption is still continuing, perfectly accepted by Western societies and legalized through various international conventions.

There are indeed numerous striking similarities between the slave trade and intercountry adoption. Both practices are demand driven, utilizing a highly advanced system of pricing and commodification of human beings with the young and healthy as the most valued, as well as being dependent on the existence of intermediaries in the forms of slave hunters and adoption agencies and a reliable transportation system of ships and planes. Both the African slaves and the Third World children are stripped of their identities as they are separated from their parents and siblings, baptized and Christianized, losing their language and culture and in the end only retaining a fetishized non-white body that has been branded or given a case number.

Especially the so-called "House Negroes" in America must be the closest parallels to intercountry adoptees as both are living with their masters, treated like their children and legally a part of the household and family. Finally, last but not least both groups are brought over only to please and satisfy the needs and desires of their well-to-do buyers, slave owners and adoptive parents respectively.

Cultural genocide and racism

When we arrive to Sweden, we have to give up our Korean identity, and it doesn't matter whether we are five weeks or seven years old. We are emptied of our Koreanness including, and are filled up with Swedishness. One effect is that few adoptees remember their childhood in their birth country. Everything un-Swedish is considered "forbidden": we are here on the Swedes' conditions. Everything linked to Korea is taboo or slandered. Korea is contemptuously considered to be a "bad" and "poor" country. Many adoptive parents have strange fantasies about Korea with strong sexual undertones: "your mother was a prostitute", "you are an incest child" and "if you had been in Korea today, either you would have been dead or a prostitute".

The adoptive parents want the adopted children to feel "chosen", but in reality adoption is nothing else but a grim lottery. Behind this is the demand from the adoptive parents to feel eternally grateful, loyal, satisfied and happy. The truth is that we would never have been here in the West without a colonial history of 500 years, without today's unequal world order, and without the dominating ideal of the middle-class nuclear family.

When the adoptee leaves the adoptive family to become an adult, the immigrant identity is waiting. From a privileged adopted child with adoptive parents who fight to make their adopted children believe that they are "special", not immigrants, the adult adoptee becomes just one of many other non-white immigrants. That is the African-Americans' strongest opinion against interracial adoption: white parents can never teach their non-white children strategies how to survive in a racist society. A similar argument was heard from some African countries refusing to use intercountry adoption already in the 1970s: "You don't treat our children with respect and dignity."

However, these arguments have oddly enough rarely reached the world of intercountry adoption. Instead it is assumed that there are no special problems, emotional or psychological costs being a non-white adoptee in a white adoptive family and living in a predominantly white surrounding. Consequently, assimilation becomes the ideal as the adoptee is stripped of name, language, religion and culture, while the bonds to the biological family and the country of origin are cut off. Adoptees who are consciously dissociating themselves from their country of origin and see themselves as whites are interpreted as examples of successful adjustments, while interest in cultural heritage and biological roots is seen as an indication of poor mental health or condemned as expressions of biologism and Nationalism. Recently, proponents of inter-country adoption have also started to attack the "politically correct" ban on interracial adoption.

The structural racism against non-whites of course also affects us adoptees. It is important to remember that tens of millions of white Europeans today again vote for openly racist parties with strong National Socialist leanings. I have the feeling that we are "stranded" here in the West, in an aggressive and arrogant culture treating us like animals. We are prisoners and hostages of the West, deadly vulnerable and without the place of refuge which immigrants have.

To feel subordinated is not only the adoptee's experience. There are some parallels to immigrants belonging to the second generation, and to people of mixed blood. The difference is that those can find strength in a birth culture our adoptive parents refused us access to. The question is not: Am I a Swede or a Korean? The question is: How can I survive as a marginalized East Asian in Sweden? To be an adopted Korean is practically to live outside both cultures. We will never be considered as Swedes, and we cannot return to Korea.

The Orientalist imagery

Racism against East Asians is still an accepted racism so much that it doesn't even count as racism. Racism against East Asians is ridicularization and collectivization. We are ugly, fussing and something to laugh about. We are outsiders, Martians, numerous, tiresome, subservient and idle, and it is impossible to separate us from each other. Our unique situation as adoptees and non-whites who have grown up with whites make us especially sensitive to racism. We intercountry adoptees know more about the West than any other non-white non-westerner on this planet. None except us adoptees are living so close to the whites. We have lived together with the "enemy", slept with him, eaten together with him.

The stereotyped sex roles are disastrous for us East Asians. The feminization and infantilization hitting both sexes, have direct consequences in our daily lives. East Asian men are desexualized, and are attractive only for some homosexual men or pedophiles. East Asian women are on the other hand hyper-sexualized but in a way that cannot be called sexuality: it is rather a question of power, violence and strains of pedophilia.

This is a pattern being the reality in United States. Ever since arriving in the 19th century, Asian-Americans have had strong difficulties to build their own stable communities. Asian-Americans have the highest ratio of interracial relations. It is no surprise that this concerns Asian women, not Asian men. In some generations and ethnic groups as many as 80 percent of the Asian-American women have left their own community for white men. The consequence is that every generation produces a bachelor society among Asian men, and a huge number of Amerasian children.

Every year tens of thousands of white men of whom many are academics in Asian Studies travel to East Asia to find a wife, and they are not making any difference between countries like Korea or Thailand. East Asia is for a white man an enormous sexual fantasy with its rape myths and colonial subordination. These white men are tramping in the same footsteps as their heroes, the American soldiers who raped East Asian women and killed Asian men in countries like Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan. The white men's sexual fantasies are reproduced in that pornographic genre called "Asian girls", a genre showing strong pedophile influences.

Whites' views on us East Asians have been taken for granted especially among us adoptees. The men feel ugly, while the women feel "special" and interpret the totally unselective attention from white men as compliments. The men remain bachelors, while the women marry white men. The last aspect has in my opinion also to do with basic survival instincts: being married to a white man is honestly speaking a one-way ticket into the white society.

Outcomes of intercountry adoption

Studies on adoptees have been conducted ever since the first children arrived in their host countries in the 1950s, and the majority have been qualitative works based on small groups of children or adolescents with adoptive parents as informants and focusing on issues of attachment, adjustment and self-esteem. In the leading adopting regions of North America, Scandinavia and Western Europe, the field is heavily dominated by researchers who are either adoptive parents themselves or affiliated to adoption agencies. As a result of these obvious limitations, the outcomes of studies are almost without exceptions interpreted as positive, and problems that have been identified are attributed to a combination of pre-adoption and genetic factors as it is understood that there are no difficulties at all of being racially different in a white environment. As a consequence, there are few studies on adult adoptees and few quantitative population studies, while the politically sensitive issues of race and ethnicity are mostly dealt with in a shallow way.

However, recently new research have come to light, based on thousands of adult intercountry adoptees in Sweden due to unique possibilities in the country of conducting quantitative register studies, showing a less positive picture of intercountry adoption. Antecedents to the Swedish studies were conducted in the Netherlands already in the 1990s showing high frequencies of behavior and emotional problems among adolescent intercountry adoptees compared to equivalent non-adopted control groups. The new Swedish studies, by far the most extensive ever conducted on intercountry adoptees in any Western country up to date, clearly indicate that intercountry adoption is not as unproblematic and idyllic as it generally is conceived as. Instead the Swedish studies should be seen as the most scientific way of assessing the outcomes of intercountry adoption.

The adult intercountry adoptees were checked up in population registers and compared to equivalent control groups among ethnic Swedes. The results show that the group has substantial problems to establish themselves socio-economically in terms of level of education, labor market achievement and creating a family in spite of having been adopted to couples predominantly belonging to the Swedish elite. It is estimated that 90 percent of the adoptive parents belong to the upper and middle classes. In spite of this, 6.6 percent of the intercountry adoptees had a post-secondary education of three years or more compared to 20 percent among biological children of the adoptive parents whom they grew up with as siblings. 60.2 percent of the intercountry adoptees were employed compared to 77.1 percent among ethnic Swedes, and half of the former group belong to the lowest income category compared 28.6 percent for the latter. 29.2 percent of the intercountry adoptees were either married or co-habitants compared to 56.2 percent of the majority population. Intercountry adoptees have less often children, and those who are parents are more often living without their children if they are males or as single parents if they are females, thus sadly mimicking their biological parents' behavior. Males have more often than females indicators of social maladjustment.

Moreover, epidemiological studies show high levels of psychiatric illness, addiction, criminality and suicide compared to the control groups. The odds ratio for psychiatric hospital care was found to be 3.2, for treatment for alcohol abuse 2.6 and for drug abuse 5.2. The odds ratio for severe criminality leading to imprisonment stood at 2.6 and for suicide attempt 3.6. Females have more often than males indicators of poor mental health. The most shocking finding is a record high odds ratio of 5.0 for suicide compared to ethnic Swedes, in an international perspective only comparable to the staggering suicide rates registered among indigenous people in North America and Oceania, which makes parallels to cultural genocide ghastly topical.

In this perspective, it becomes more evident than ever that intercountry adoption is nothing else but an irresponsible social experiment of gigantic measures, from the beginning to the end.

Tobias Hubinette
The author is adopted from Korea and lives in Stockholm, Sweden.