Marrakesh, Morocco - When Chantal, a European woman, and her husband met an infant boy in March 2012 in a Casablanca orphanage, they felt immediately connected to him.
They converted to Islam and regularly traveled to Morocco to visit the baby, hoping one day to take him home with them.
But a new decree issued by Morocco's government makes it increasingly difficult for foreigners to adopt Moroccan children.
''We met him on March 22, I remember that day as if it was his birthday,'' said Chantal, who is in her forties and wishes to remain anonymous, fearing that public statements could have a negative effect on an upcoming decision on her adoption case.
|Until now, about 50 percent of all adoptions in Morocco were by people residing abroad [AFP]
''We had a strong connection to him right away - every time we traveled to see him, we would tell him about the places we wanted to take him to and things we wanted to do with him. Now, we cannot promise anything any more.''
In Islam, there is no adoption. Instead, there is a process called "kafala,'' a form of sponsorship that allows caregivers to take a child into their home, although the child never takes the name of the surrogate parents, or gains legal status as their child. In past years many abandoned Moroccan children have been matched to foreign parents this way.
But last September, the Moroccan minister of justice, Mustapha Ramid, issued a circular that forbade non-residents of Morocco from adopting. He said it was because of the risk that the families would not raise their children as Muslims.
Ramid has said that although people convert in order to adopt, there have been many cases where the children have then been raised under another religion.
According to aid organisations, this change in the rules will have serious consequences for orphans. Until now, about 50 percent of all adoptions in Morocco were by people residing abroad.
Nezha Sqalli, a former Moroccan family minister, said that there were about 6,000 orphans in Morocco, and that about 3,000 would be affected by the new restrictions.
National Institution of Solidarity with Women in Distress, a Moroccan organisation, reports that there are 153 children born of out wedlock daily, and about two dozen of these infants are abandoned.
The Minister of Justice has asserted that up to 30,000 adopted children have been converted to Christianity in the past 20 years, and says his decree will stop this trend.
Ilham El Hassani, a court-appointed social worker in Marrakesh who has worked on several adoption cases, says that the children will suffer because of this new rule.
''Since the circular was issued, we have gotten a lot fewer adoption requests - people do not want to take the risk of creating a bond with the child for nothing,'' she said.
El Hassani added that the decision can still be reversed on a case-by-case basis. "Legally, a circular is not an actual law and in the end, the judge has the final say. So there is still hope for parents with ongoing cases.''
International adoption has become a hot-button issue in recent years. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning Americans from adopting Russian orphans. The decision sparked outrage in the international community, with critics saying the move would hurt orphans waiting to be rescued from poverty.
Elizabeth Bartholet, the director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, who specialises in child welfare and adoption, says that a reduction in international adoptions is disastrous for orphans.
''The direct connection when you shut down international adoption is that countries do not have enough people that will adopt nationally and foster care is not going to be created,'' she said.''What you get is kids growing up in institutions and those are the people who are going to be incredibly at risk for trafficking.''
Many experts, however, disagree with the assumption that adoption is good for orphans, saying that transnational and transracial adoptions can be dangerous.
|UNICEF says that international adoption should be a last resort for orphans [GALLO/GETTY]
The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, for instance, says that international adoption should be a last resort for orphans. The agency advocates for the creation of efficient domestic programs to aid poor families, and bring down the number of abandoned children.
UNICEF also favors the strengthening of child protection services and allowing families who previously abandoned their children to raise them with small contributions from the state.
''We have campaigned successfully in several countries like in Eastern Europe where, because families are getting more support, they can raise the children,'' said Susan Bissell, chief of UNICEF's global child protection program.
She warns that money may be playing too big a role in adoptions, saying, ''we live in a world where everything can be bought and sold, including a child".
But she also acknowledges a role for international adoption, and added that the children who were already in the process of being adopted by foreign families are now in legal limbo.
''Sadly in most cases, there is not a plan in place for the children who were in the process for being adopted abroad,'' she said.
Others say that while adoption may expose children to abuse, forbidding it does not make them safe.
''It is a well-known and widely ignored fact that, despite supposed oversight, institutionalised children, as well as those in domestic foster care, are at risk for all kinds of abuse, including trafficking,'' said Ann Reese, founder of the Center of Adoption Policy, a research institution based in New York.
Moroccans living abroad say they are also affected by the decree. In a letter addressed to the Moroccan justice minister, Mourad Zaki, the spokesman for a group advocating for the rights for adoption for Moroccans abroad, says that many who are Moroccans and Muslim are prevented from adopting because they live out of the country.
"We alerted the justice ministry on the cases of legal abuses," he wrote. "Now we are asking him to intervene with the prosecutors once and for all to clarify the situation."
Ramid, the justice minister, says that what matters is what is best for the children."We don't differentiate between Moroccans living here or abroad," he said in a recent interview on the Belgian radio station Al Manar. "The ones who are concerned are foreigners living abroad who have no ties with Morocco who cannot come in and just leave with children as if they were some merchandise."
In the meantime, many of those seeking to adopt children in Morocco are waiting for judges to decide whether they can take their chosen child home.
''The justice minister must make a humanitarian gesture for cases that were already underway,'' Chantal said. ''We will continue trying. If we give up, for him it would be like being abandoned for a second time.''