BERLIN – Adoption expert Maria Holz usually gets two or three e-mails a day asking about children in need abroad. Since the Asian tsunami (search), it's been 10 times that.
She respects people's urge to help children who have lost their parents in the disaster but warns it's too early to know which children truly lack people who can raise them in their home country.
"They are driven, of course, to do what is right, to take in a child," said Holz, based at the Terre des Hommes children's aid organization in Osnabrueck, Germany.
But, as governments and individuals try to help in the wake of the Asian tsunami, "I don't think that this is the burning issue yet," she cautions.
The priority, she says, will to be to find children homes in their own countries, either with relatives or adoptive parents — advice also given this week by adoption experts and government officials across Europe.
It can take months or years to decide whether a child can be adopted outside its home country, and each nation has its own laws regarding foreign adoptions that apply no matter how badly people want to help. Expedited adoptions will be possible only if those governments change their procedures for tsunami orphans.
Indonesia (search), for instance, restricts adoptions by foreigners to those who have lived there for at least two years, and Thailand has imposed a moratorium on applications for some kinds of foreign adoptions.
People who want to do something right away should donate to direct aid efforts or sponsor a child, several adoption officials said.
"Legality is the cornerstone of adoption and that cannot be done in a chaotic situation," said Joergen-Ulrich Raunskov, the director of AC International Child Support, a Danish adoption agency.
In Britain, the charity Save the Children UK (search) also cautioned against rushing to adopt.
"Adoptions, especially inter-country ones, are inappropriate during the emergency phase as children are better placed being cared for by their wider families and the communities they know," it said in a statement.
Amid chaos in the affected countries, thousands of people are still missing and identification of the victims may take months.
The urge to ask about adoption after a disaster is easy to understand, said Norbert Scheiwe, head of the German Association for Parents of Foreign Adopted Children. He said foreign adoption inquiries also went up during the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"They see that they are in an emergency situation, that the children are alone," Scheiwe said. "That naturally hits the heart, and they say, 'We have the possibility, we just want to help."'
Several public figures have raised the issue of how adoption could play a part in the world's effort to help. In Italy, center-left opposition leader Francesco Rutelli asked the government to work "with affected countries to favor long-distance adoption and adoption for all the children left without families."
"It would be one of the best responses to give," he was quoted as saying by Il Gazzettino newspaper.
In France, Sister Emmanuelle, a nun widely admired for her aid work, appealed on television for easier adoptions from Asia. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier at first appeared open to the idea, saying the ministry could put special measures in place. (A ministry spokeswoman later said the topic was "sensitive" and that procedures for the moment would remain unchanged.)
Germany's Family Ministry, which oversees foreign adoptions, said the focus for now was on aid, not adoption, and Italy was rebuffing new applications aimed at tsunami orphans.
In Austria, the non-governmental organization SOS Children's Villages says it has had a strong response to a program that lets donors sponsor one child for about $20 a month, providing essentials such as food and clothing.
Madeline Grivel, vice-president of France's Enfants du Monde, which arranges adoptions from India and Bulgaria, said that "one doesn't declare a child adoptable in haste."
"It is something that engages a child's future completely," she said. "It is a long-term project and shouldn't be based on an impulse of generosity."
A top European Union official, in comments published Friday, said the EU should adjust its asylum rules to allow for the temporary adoption of tsunami orphans.
European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Franco Frattini said the EU should make it easier for Europeans to become temporary foster parents for children from the stricken areas.
"The EU already has rules to allow temporary asylum to people coming from countries struck by natural catastrophes or disasters. But at the moment these only apply to adults," Frattini told the newspaper La Repubblica. "My proposal is to extend these rules also to children to allow young people from the areas hit by the tsunami to come to Europe, spend some months here and then go back home."
"Temporary asylum would guarantee that children go back to their homes," Frattini told the paper. "It is a way to take them away from the tragic situations that we read about these days with children who disappear from hospitals among the chaos."