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Lifting the veil on orphanage tourism

17 February 2020, Impact of Our Work

Protecting children’s rights to live with their families  

When you think of orphanages, you may think about children who have no family at all. No mother or father. No grandmother to look after them, or a close aunt or uncle to take them in. 

Unfortunately for many children this just isn’t the case. In fact, over 80% of children in orphanages have a living parent who could take care of them given the right support. 

What are the facts?

An estimated eight million children are living in institutions like orphanages around the world. Put simply, these are no places for children. In these huge group environments with often very little oversight, children are at increased risk of violence, abuse and long-term damage to their development. 

Karen Flanagan AM is Save the Children’s Principal Advisor in Child Protection. Over her 35-year career she’s seen exactly how children can be damaged, psychologically, emotionally and physically, the longer they spend in institutional care. Her new book, Modern Day Slavery and Orphanage Tourism, looks at how to prevent family separation and how to get children out of orphanages and back with their families. “There are years of international evidence that demonstrate the harm caused to children living in institutions,” she says. “I’ve seen how children suffer when they’re denied the right to live with their families. This suffering is compounded because of their physical and emotional separation from their family, as well as living in a group environment in which there’s an increased risk of violence, abuse and neglect.” 

So why are they there? 

There are a number of reasons why children who have families who could care for them are living in an orphanage. 
A key reason is the demand for orphans and orphanages. There is a huge market from tourists to donate money or volunteer in orphanages, often known as ‘voluntourism’. It’s often a popular ‘work experience’ placement for high school or gap year students. Many tour companies also offer the opportunity to visit an orphanage as part of their itinerary. But children aren’t tourist attractions. 

Another reason is that many parents in developing countries believe their child would be better off living in an institution. These families who are often living in poverty, believe it is their child’s best chance to secure three square meals a day, and an education they wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. But children need their parents’ love more than anything else. 

On the ground 

“As part of a field trip I was taken to several institutions to observe some of the work on deinstitutionalization. What I saw was heartbreaking. Rows of cots with babies in them, bottles propped in their mouths with rolled up towels. No human contact for the babies other than changing and bathing. In this institution, children with disabilities were simply left lying on the floors, as it was deemed safer, as staff rushed by them, wiping drool with their little mouths or noses. When children heard a new voice, my own, several put up their hands or made sounds, seemingly craving human physical contact. The tears sprung freely, and I quickly wiped my eyes for fear I would be seen as unprofessional.” 

* This is an edited extract from Karen Flanagan’s new book Modern Day Slavery and Orphanage Tourism, out now. 

What can we do?

Governments, NGOs, and the tourism industry are all coming around to the idea that children are better off with their families, and that residential care including orphanages should be a very last resort. In many countries like Cambodia and Indonesia, Save the Children is working with organisations to make sure parents can keep their children with them, as long as it is safe to do so, and have the resources to send them to school. With adequate financial and social support, we can make sure children are cared for by the people that know them, love them, and have their best interests at heart – their families. 

But we all have a responsibility to make sure children can be cared for by their families. 

One of the primary ways you can do that is to practice responsible tourism. That means not donating to or visiting orphanages when you travel overseas. There are many worthy organisations and projects that will support children in the countries in which you travel. 

After you’ve educated yourself, educate others. Anyone who donates their time or money, travels overseas, or supports others travelling overseas to visit an orphanage, should know how they can help in ways which does not involve the exploitation of vulnerable children. You can contribute by sharing information with your network and your continued support of Save the Children.

Most people who visit or volunteer in orphanages have nothing but the best of intentions. We all want to see happy, smiling children who are getting a good education full of imagination and dreams for their future. By supporting organisations who can ensure children are taken care of by their own families or in family-based care when needed, and loved by their parents, we can make sure they still get there. Every child has a right to grow up in a family environment and it is certainly in their best interest to do so.

If you’d like to know more about orphanage tourism, Save the Children’s Karen Flanagan’s new book Modern Day Slavery and Orphanage Tourism is out now.  

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