Tom Kington

ROME: As Italy's fertility rate declines, couples are looking abroad in a search for orphans.

Figures out this month show that as more women enter the workplace, often to boost family finances, couples are having an average of 1.33 children, down from 2.7 about 40 years ago, and the age of having their first child has risen to 29, up from 25.

Thousands of couples, frustrated by the rigid laws restricting adoption within Italy, are looking for children overseas.

In 2006, Italians adopted 3,158 children from countries as diverse as Russia, Colombia and Ethiopia, three times the number adopted from inside the country. In other European countries, adoption is in decline, with less than 10 per cent of adopted children coming from abroad.

"The law in Italy insists on family members being sought out for abandoned children before they are adopted, with the result that many languish in institutions until they are 18," said the spokesman for Italy's International Adoption Commission, which oversees the country's 68 adoption agencies.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007