DEC member agencies call for halt to any new adoptions of children separated from their families after Haiti earthquake: Aid effort must focus on tracing and reunification of families

Member agencies of the Disasters Emergency Committee are calling for the international focus to remain on reuniting children who have lost their families during the earthquake in Haiti rather than adopting them out of the country.

The agencies are calling for an immediate moratorium on any new adoptions of children left on their own following last week's devastating earthquake until full extended family tracing and reunification has been completed.

They said any hasty new adoptions would risk permanently breaking up families, causing long-term damage to already vulnerable children, and could distract from aid efforts in Haiti. Experience in such major emergencies shows that most children currently struggling to survive on their own will have family still alive, and efforts must be concentrated on tracing and reuniting families.

Adoptions already in process should go ahead, as long as the appropriate legal documentation is in place and the adoptions meet Haitian and international law.

The call came from child protection and family tracing experts at Save the Children and World Vision, and the restoring family links unit of the British Red Cross.

Jasmine Whitbread, Save the Children's Chief Executive, said:

"Thousands of families have been separated in the chaos of the earthquake, but the vast majority of the children currently on their own still have family members alive who will be desperate to be reunited with them and will be able to care for them with the right support. Taking children out of the country would permanently separate thousands of children from their families - a separation that would compound the acute trauma they are already suffering and inflict long-term damage on their chances of recovery.

"People wanting to help protect vulnerable children in Haiti will make the most difference by giving to agencies working to reunite children with their families and support relatives to care for them long-term."

Justin Byworth, World Vision's Chief Executive, said:

"The extreme poverty in Haiti already makes children extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and new unregulated adoptions could open the door to child traffickers. Children should not be leaving Haiti at this stage except with surviving family members or if adoptions already in process have full required legal documents. We are concerned not only about premature overseas adoption but also about children increasingly being sent unaccompanied to the Dominican Republic."

Pete Garratt, British Red Cross Disaster Response Manager, said:

"The International Committee of the Red Cross continues to work closely with the Haitian Red Cross to help Haitians re-establish contact with their loved ones. The ICRC has opened an office at the headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross in Crois de Prez to help people to locate and get back in touch with relatives."

As of 18 January, more than 22,000 people had registered on the ICRC's special website, www.icrc.org/familylinks, which was activated on 14 January to help people searching for their loved ones.

Save the Children has teams on the ground identifying lone children and is launching an emergency family tracing and reunification programme to reunite families and help put in place long-term support for their care.

The members also strongly discourage western governments from moving large numbers of children out of Haiti unless essential for medical reasons. If children are taken for treatment, the evacuating authorities must make sure that children have a caregiver or parents with them, and proper records are kept of their whereabouts so they can be reunited with relatives when they are physically better.

World Vision and Save the Children also called for the Government of Haiti to develop a policy on separated and accompanied children, providing clear guidelines on how to respond to this issue in the medium to longer term. This policy should draw on the recently welcomed UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children and the UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusion on Children at Risk.

Notes to editors:

- To make a postal donation make cheques payable to 'DEC Haiti Earthquake Appeal' and mail to 'PO Box 999, London, EC3A 3AA'.

- Donations can be made at any high street bank, or at a Post Office by quoting Freepay 1449.

- Text "GIVE" to 70077 to give =A35 to the DEC Haiti Earthquake Appeal. =A35 goes to the DEC. You pay =A35 plus the standard network SMS rate.

- The DEC consists of: Action Aid, British Red Cross, CAFOD, CARE International UK, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund, World Vision.

- The DEC criteria to launch an appeal are: The disaster must be on such a scale and of such urgency as to call for swift International humanitarian assistance. The DEC agencies, or some of them, must be in a position to provide effective and swift humanitarian assistance at a scale to justify a national Appeal. There must be reasonable grounds for concluding that a public appeal would be successful, either because of evidence of existing public sympathy for the humanitarian situation or because there is a compelling case indicating the likelihood of significant public support should an appeal be launched.