Child Safe Tourism – spotlight on orphanages

by Amy McLoughlin

Orphanage Tourism

What is Orphanage Tourism? It can be most commonly found in Cambodia, where tourists may be approached by children, asking them to make a visit to their orphanage in exchange for a small donation towards the upkeep of their home (Friends-International). Controversially, an entire tourism industry has grown around this and now represents thousands of tourist visits.

Orphanage tourism is a burgeoning industry and attracting attention for a whole host of reasons. Most commonly because the children in question are exposed to exploitation and the begging culture does not equate to a sustainable future of the centre or its inhabitants. Shockingly, there have also been reports of some establishments where children have been bought from families to be placed into ‘fake’ orphanages to work in heartstring-tugging roles to generate money.
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Some things you should know about orphanages in Cambodia:

  1. According to the Alternative Care Report (2008) 75% of children living in orphanages, are not orphans.
  2. Many orphanages exploit children to raise money. They can be scams to attract donations, tourists and volunteers.
  3. Most orphanages do not have child protection policies in place and therefore are unsafe environments for children.

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It doesn’t end with orphanages. Visitors across the world can be found visiting schools, slums or dump-sites  The Child Safe Network provides travellers with advice about visiting such sites; they suggest visiting these situations only further enforces inequality and poor living environments can often be maintained to trigger emotional giving from tourists.

Children are not Tourist Attractions

Children-are-not-tourist-attractions1In the late 2000′s, orphanage tourism had increased greatly, as had the number of orphanages across Cambodia. Friends-International had identified orphanage tourism as a growing concern for several years. As a result, in 2011 they launched the ‘Children are not Tourist Attractions’ campaign.

Expert in the field Luke Gracie from Friends-International, works with a network of NGOs to provide family based care to children living outside their families and to prevent abandonment of children. He shares his insights into this industry and its implications…

Orphanage tourism places a huge number of risks on kids, so reducing the number of tourists visiting orphanages will reduce the chances of child protection violations to kids, as well as contribute to breaking the business model of the orphanages that see kids as profit making entities.

There are a lot of negative impacts of people visiting orphanages. I find the process ethically offensive. Placing vulnerable children as a type of commodity that people pay money to visit and play with is a pretty poor foundation for a child centre to be working from.

With no checks on the people who are visiting many orphanages, it is an unacceptable risk to children that predators could potentially see where they live and interact with the kids. People shouldn’t support orphanages or child centres that place children at that level of risk.

It can be traumatising for children living in orphanages to make attachments to visitors and for them to leave after a short amount of time. It’s important for children to make attachments to care givers, a conveyer belt of people arriving and giving them attention is not a healthy experience for children.

We gave Luke the following scenario: I am a tourist being offered the chance to visit an orphanage and I really want to help. What shall I do? Can there be positive impacts of orphanage tourism? In a nutshell, he replies: “not really”. Luke suggests that visiting an orphanage is much like the temptation to give in to begging. Whilst he admits, the sensation of making a vulnerable child smile is tempting after giving them money in the street, people should be aware of what the longer term impact of giving or visiting an orphanage is. It can create a lifecycle of poor child care and can fund pro-longed dangerous living environments.

Orphanage Volunteers

Similar to visiting an orphanage as part of a holiday, those volunteering their time to help out in an orphanage are also gaining attention from the media. Under much criticism, ‘voluntourism’ in general has been put under the spotlight with many asking ‘a help of hindrance?’.

No child benefits from spending intimate time with a total stranger, especially those who are uneducated in social work and education
- Tessa Boudrie, a qualified social worker *

Some professionals in the sector have criticised volunteer opportunities for a lack of purpose and that many volunteers don’t possess the relevant skills or time commitment needed to make a real difference. Orphanages can often be desperate for help and will open their doors unwittingly to dangerous characters, putting children’s safety at risk. Children in orphanages can also be susceptible to emotional loss from the ever changing conveyor belt of volunteers.

On the other hand, volunteers are also open to exploitation and many volunteers engage with orphanages with a genuine desire to bring positive benefits yet are greeted by ‘fake’ or unethical establishments out to make a buck from willing foreigners.

Luke stresses that:

Volunteering can be a great thing and provide fantastic benefits to organisations. People increasingly see the injustice of the world, how it’s not a fair world and they want to do something to prevent or mitigate that in some small way. That’s a really great mind-set to have.

Kate JordanKate Jordan from the USA has spent two four month stints volunteering in orphanages in Nepal and Guatemala. She was motivated to volunteer in orphanages because she loves working with children, with a dream of a career in international social welfare.

Kate pursued working with paid volunteer opportunities to be assured that she was travelling with a reputable organisation. Generally, she felt confident that this money was being spent to support the projects where she was working, such as supplies needed by the orphanage. However, at the orphanage in a rural Nepali village, Kate reports it was very evident that the owner of the orphanage was selling these supplies in order to fund her own comparatively lavish life style.

It was extremely difficult to see that [children] living at the orphanage were being neglected…my supervisor conveyed to me that it was better that they were receiving the care of volunteers, albeit while being denied their rightful resources, rather than receiving no care from volunteers at all. My inability to affect large changes was especially frustrating when I felt that the children were being treated in an unjust manner.

The campaign ‘Orphanages: Not the Solution’ states that “few tourists or volunteers are qualified to interact with traumatized or vulnerable children”. Kate agrees, and when applying to work with children, the only major requirement was that she was over eighteen years. Whilst her education is in social care, Kate believes that there should definitely be more of a screening process for potential volunteers. In general Kate’s experiences were life-changing and heart-warming yet she expressed how difficult it was dealing with children who had experienced hardship at such a young age.

Whilst she admits she will never know if she made a lasting impact on the lives of the children she worked with, the children have made an indelible impact on her life. For Kate, it was important that her time spent in those communities was more long lasting than just the four months spent there. Inspirationally, she recently succeeded in fundraising $10,000 to purchase an ambulance for the rural Nepali village where she worked. She did this in response to the challenges the children faced due to a fluid population of volunteers in orphanages.

[Children] have grown used to the constant coming and going of volunteers and tend to see new volunteers as little more than deliverers of gifts, sweets, and constant attention. I frequently felt that the benefit of having foreign volunteers was outweighed by the negative impact that over-attachment has on the lives of children without parents or families.

We asked Luke what he would recommend to anyone considering visiting or volunteering at an orphanage.

Think…is it really necessary and what help are they actually providing to the children in the centre? Are they actually orphans? If not, why not support an organisation that is helping kids get back with their families or is helping families remain strong so the whole issue of kids being removed from their families never happens in the first place.

If you’d like to make a donation to support the work of Friends-International, you can contribute online here.

Useful Links

  • Wild Asia – We’re proud supporters of the Child Safe Network and share guidelines on our website: link
  • Al-Jazeera - Documentary about ‘Cambodia’s orphan business’ for more information: link 
  • Child Safe Network - Child safe tourism tips for travellers and tourism businesses: link
  • Orphanages No - Discover why supporting orphanages as a ‘solution’ fuels the ‘problem’: link
  • Good Intentions - Learn more about ‘smart aid’: link
  • PEPY – Learning Service volunteer guidelines for those seeking to make a real difference: link 

* Quote taken from Expat Living article “Should you or shouldn’t you volunteer at a Cambodian orphanage?” 

(Photographs provided by Kate Jordan)

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