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Reclaiming identity: right to trace birth parents in transnational adoption

This article is the second in a series about intercountry adoptions. While over 160,000 Korean children have been adopted abroad since the 1950-53 Korean War, it is believed that many cases have infringed on relevant laws or violated children’s right to know the truth about their filiation. The series will review such violations in transnational adoptions of Korean children and elsewhere, and discuss receiving countries’ moves for their own investigations. This series is co-organized with Human Rights Beyond Borders. ― ED.

By Joyce Bex

Who are my first parents/family? What were the circumstances surrounding my adoption? How can I obtain my adoption file or other relevant documents? Can I contact my first family, and if so, how?

Transnational adoption has been controversial for many years, as it raises complex questions. In 2021, the Flemish government took a step toward understanding the past and present practices of transnational adoption in Flanders, Belgium. Through an investigation conducted by an expert panel, the working group on historical and social sciences produced a sub-report outlining their findings.

The report reveals that transnational adoption experienced significant growth starting in the 1970s but is currently in decline. It is estimated that more than 22,000 children from 90 different countries have been adopted in Belgium. However, the accuracy of these numbers in representing actual adoption practices remains uncertain. The investigation sheds light on the complexity of transnational adoption and highlights the need for continued examination and evaluation of adoption practices to ensure the well-being and protection of all adoptees involved.

To address the demand and advocate for adoptees, donor-conceived individuals and Metis (mixed race children from former Belgian colonies), and for their human right to know their origins, the Flemish government established the Afstammingscentrum by its founding decree, on April 26, 2019.

According to this decree, the center’s three primary tasks are: providing information and awareness; psychosocial support for individual filiation questions and searches; and advocacy and development of expertise on filiation questions. This reflects the government’s commitment to facilitating access to information on filiation, recognizing it as a fundamental human right and removing obstacles in this regard. Since April 1, 2021, anyone in Belgium with questions about their filiation, and whose legal kinship does not match their genetic kinship, can seek assistance from the center. The establishment of the Afstammingscentrum is a significant step toward ensuring the rights and well-being of all individuals involved in adoption.

Adoption can take different forms, including transnational and domestic, but adoptees’ questions about their origins and the search for their families are often the same. However, search methods, cultural context and the likelihood of success may differ.

Adoptees may feel the need to know more about their life history, such as their genetic background, and have questions about their identity, first parents, the context of birth and the reason for renunciation. While some adoptees desire only information, others want to search for and contact their first families and others want to connect with the culture of their country of origin. The group of transnational adoptees is highly diverse, coming from various countries of origin, adopted at different ages, with or without siblings, with or without memories of parents or family and more. In some cases, information about the first parent(s) is known, while in other cases, every trace is missing or the information has been destroyed.

Often, first families are left with questions that linger for years after they have given up their child, whether by force, through misleading information or voluntarily. Giving up a child for adoption is a difficult decision, and the stigma, fear of exclusion from family or communities and shame surrounding the decision make it challenging for them to seek support. Searching for this information on filiation can be an intense and often lonely journey. Therefore, the center supports adoptees and first families in their questions and searches.

Throughout the process, individuals are in contact with their case manager who assists them through the whole process from contacting authorities and consulting archives to conducting DNA research and offering psychosocial support. The case managers act as mediators during the search and help navigate the complex and unique circumstances that each case has.

It is important to recognize that every search is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to finding information on filiation. Factors such as which relatives are involved, the context of the adoption or relinquishment and how much information is already known can all impact the search. At the Afstammingscentrum, we strive to provide support to everyone, recognizing the sensitivity and complexity of individual situations.

It is crucial to recognize the variety of questions adoptees may have, which can range from seeking basic information about their birth and adoption process to more complex inquiries about accessing files, DNA research and psychosocial support. The Afstammingscentrum is committed to providing support throughout its trajectory, including helping everyone identify the appropriate organizations to turn to for support, guiding them through contacting potential relatives and offering support when the search yields unexpected results.

As the title of this article suggests, access to information on filiation is a human right. And as more people begin to recognize this, new centers of filiation should emerge. The prospect of these centers working together on an international and/or intercontinental level is hopeful. Who knows how many people could be supported on their journey toward healing and repair? After all, many individuals still suffer the consequences of structural transnational adoption systems. So, which country will be the next to step up?

Joyce Bex ( is a case manager at Afstammingscentrum, bringing her educational background in family sciences and gender and diversity studies to her work. Her research interests center on discourses related to intersectionality, migration, decoloniality and critical adoption studies.

See the original article at The Korea Times

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