Orphanage Tourism

Did you know that most children in orphanages aren’t really orphans? According to research done by Research by UNICEF up to 75% of children kept in orphanages in Cambodia and Nepal are not even orphans. Many of the children come from poor rural families and are trafficked into orphanages because their parents feel this will give them the best chance at life. Other times they may be hired for the day to create the illusion that they are poor and as a result, travelers are moved by compassion to volunteer or give donations. So, children are exploited, the kindness of strangers is taken advantage of and these so-called orphanages are profiting.

What exactly is Orphanage Tourism? It is a type of tourism in which the wealthy of western countries visit orphanages in poorer countries. The practice has been described as commodifying the orphans for the benefit of tour operators and the management of the orphanages, while the tourists are exploited for their money (Wikipedia).

Voluntourism in orphanages leaves children vulnerable to abuse where child protection regulations are lax. It creates attachment problems in children who become close to short-term visitors and perpetuates the myth that many of these children are orphans in need of adoption (Hope and Homes for Children).

Author of the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling calls for people to stop volunteering, visiting and giving donations to orphanages. At a conference in London, she urged people, “Do not volunteer in orphanages. Instead, look at what drives children into institutions,” she told a conference in London. She has set up a charity, Lumos, in response to cases of neglect in Eastern European orphanages which is campaigning to remove children from orphanages and return them to their families.

When Western Australian Senator Linda Reynolds visited Cambodia with Save the Children, she learned of the harms of 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.” 

Here are six reasons by Intrepid Travel (which I have paraphrased) for why we should think twice before considering orphanage tourism:

1. Orphanages are often not what you think – most of the children are not orphans but live in poverty with their families. Some of them are hired to solicit unsuspecting travelers.

2. Kids do better at home – unless there is evidence of abuse, children develop better at home. And if their parents can’t care for them, then support (donations) should be given organizations and programs which provide them the skills and resources.

3. Volunteers often don’t stay for very long – volunteers don’t speak the local language or have any formal training or stay for a long time. All of these things can be very disruptive for the kids. They would fare better if people would stick around for a long time so that they can better understand each child and his/her situation.

4. There’s a potential for danger and abuse – Tourism in orphanages is not well regulated and since visitors and volunteers go through very few checks beforehand, vulnerable kids are exposed to potential abuse.

5. Tourism actually fuels supply – By visiting these places and volunteering, travelers may actually be helping to commercialize orphanages. They’re supporting a model of care which separates kids from their families. If the demand for orphanage tourism dries up, there’s very little incentive for orphanage operators to keep doing what they do.  

6. Would you do it at home? – If you wouldn’t volunteer at an orphanage in your hometown then you should ask yourself why you’re doing it in Thailand, or Cambodia, or Tanzania. Children shouldn’t be used as tourist attractions. And while it’s perfectly natural for us to what to do good and to help the poor and needy, we don’t know all of the facts. We can be harming rather than helping.

Find out about Orphanage Tourism and how you can help legitimate organizations who are working to end this unscrupulous business which, JK Rowling believes, “renders children very vulnerable to abuse and trafficking, it has huge effects on their normal development, and it massively impacts their life chances.”

Sources: Intrepid Travel; BBC; Save the Children;

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