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Orphanage tourism

18 March 2016, Action for Change

The problem with volunteering in orphanages

If you’re thinking of volunteering on your next holiday, make sure you do your research. 

Although it might sound like a good idea, volunteering overseas, or voluntourism, can actually end up being harmful to kids and communities. Volunteering in orphanages is especially problematic.

In many of the countries Save the Children works, orphanage tourism is an increasing problem. Thousands of children are being removed from their families, friends and communities to fill places in 'orphanages'. 

Unscrupulous people are capitalising on the goodwill of visitors who want to donate money or volunteer by filling orphanages with children who are not, in fact, orphans. To meet the demand of foreigners wanting to support poor children, some orphanages have taken children from their parents, after convincing them their children would be better off in care. 

If you are interested in volunteering and want to make sure you don’t end up doing more harm than good, there are much better ways to volunteer

What does orphanage tourism mean for kids?

Children in institutions can often face a lack individual care, privacy and independence, and are at high risk of abuse, violence and exploitation. Children who grow up in orphanages are at higher risk of suicide, prostitution and involvement in criminal activity. 

In Cambodia, the number of residential care institutions has risen by 75% in the last decade, despite the fact that the number of orphans has significantly reduced. The vast majority of children in these institutions are not orphans, in the traditional sense, but children from poor families. 

When Western Australian Senator Linda Reynolds visited Cambodia with Save the Children, she learned of the harms done by orphanage tourism.

“In Australia we know the negative physical and mental impacts of children in residential care,” she says, “we should not be supporting these institutions overseas when community-based options are available.

“Orphanage operators in Cambodia have been known to seek out children to live in their establishments and to provide payment or exercise coercion for their parents to give them up. 

“Often these children come from very poor families in rural areas, and the operators disingenuously offer parents the opportunity of a better life for their children than the parents believe they would be able to provide in their local communities. 

"Just stop and think about that: thousands of children are being removed from their families, from their friends, from their communities, from those who love and nurture them, to fill places in these facilities.” 

Orphanage tourism and modern slavery

In December 2018, Australia passed its first Modern Slavery Bill and in doing so, became the first nation to include orphanage trafficking in its definition of slavery.

Orphanage trafficking is the recruitment of children into orphanages for the purpose of exploitation and profit. Save the Children has been advocating for orphanage trafficking to be recognised as a form of modern slavery since 2016.

The bill requires businesses to be more transparent and accountable about the slavery risks in their operations and supply chains. 

Orphanage tourism is just one way companies might be causing harm to children. Companies need to determine whether are contributing to modern slavery – and deal with it. 

Moving in the right direction to end orphanage tourism

There have been some positive steps forward in recent times. The inclusion of orphanage trafficking in the definition of modern slavery was hugely important but even before that, some companies were taking positive steps forward.

Karen Flanagan AM, Save the Children’s Child Protection Technical Unit Manager, said, “It is staggering to think that around the world there are up to 8 million children living in institutions, despite the fact that approximately 80% of these children have family who could care for them if they had the right support. 

“Australians must become informed about the orphanage industry. Supporting ReThink Orphanages will help ensure all children can achieve their right to grow up in a family.”


You can find out more about ReThink Orphanages. 

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