This is a guest post by human rights campaigner Meg Lewis.
Earlier this month an orphanage tourism taskforce was launched in the UK by ABTA and Hope and Homes for Children. The taskforce aims to halt the trend of well-meaning international tourists from visiting and volunteering in orphanages across the globe. This follows legislation passed in Australia last year which recognises orphanage tourism as a form of modern-day slavery. At first glance, it can be difficult to understand how volunteering in orphanages could be so harmful that it can be classed as modern-day slavery, which is why it is important to look at what drives the industry and how it impacts children.
Volunteering in orphanages has become a staple of the modern gap year experience, promising tourists an opportunity to ‘give back’, have a meaningful experience and build connections in local communities. Visitors or volunteers bring donations, watch children’s cultural performances, play with children, teach informal English lessons or visit as part of tours or independent travel. Orphanage visits make up travel itineraries alongside trips to the zoo and cooking courses – despite it being highly unlikely that they would be able to visit children’s homes in their home country in order to play with and take selfies with children.
Lumos, a non-profit organisation working to end the institutionalisation of children, estimate that 80% of the children living in orphanages worldwide have at least one living parent. So, what is driving the rapid increase in the institutionalisation of children? Evidence points firmly towards the increase in voluntourism. It is estimated that the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 76% in a five-year period, coinciding with a 76% increase in tourist numbers. Despite decreasing numbers of actual orphans in Cambodia, as orphanages emerge, so to do children to fill them.
The idea of volunteering in an orphanage in the Global South may seem like a worthy cause. However, altruistic intentions can obscure the much darker reality. The potential for orphanages to produce profit has been exploited by entrepreneurs, corrupt officials and organised criminal gangs. The demand for orphans to fill profit-making orphanages drives orphan trafficking, the process through which children are removed from their family and fabricated as ‘paper orphans’ through the production of fraudulent papers such as identity documents and death certificates of parents. ‘Paper orphans’ are produced through exploitation of desperate families and trafficking of children. Inequalities such as poverty and limited access to healthcare and education push families to make challenging decisions. Parents place children in orphanages in the belief that they will have improved access to healthcare, food and education, whilst reducing the financial burden of care within the household. Recruiters actively coerce families by tricking or luring them into signing over parental rights under false pretences.
Numerous international agencies broker volunteer experiences at orphanages with varying levels of fees and requirements. This means that many orphanages are run as businesses, prioritising profit over child welfare. Volunteers and visitors do not need specific skills or qualifications, nor are they required to have criminal record checks or references. The exposure of children to unscreened and unqualified international volunteers increases their risk of abuse and exploitation.
The links between modern-day slavery become much clearer when looking at the roles that children are expected to play in order to maintain the industry, such as performing and begging from tourists. Children in orphanages are often tasked with raising money for their own care or generating profit for orphanage directors. By turning orphanages into tourist attractions, children are expected to perform a role for tourists, sharing scripted narratives of their histories. Care leavers interviewed in the documentary The Love you Give said that staff told them that should volunteers learn that they have living families, money will be withdrawn, and with it the child’s care. Some orphanages send children into tourist areas to hand out flyers and tout for business. This role includes working on the streets late at night in outdoor bars and drinking areas, where children are vulnerable to multiple risks. In many orphanages, children are expected to put on nightly dance or cultural performances for visiting tourists, without pay or remuneration.
Rather than working to eliminate global inequalities, Western tourists volunteering in orphanages in the Global South actually reinforce unequal social relations between the global North and South. Voluntourism is a virtuous act, only available to the privileged, who can afford to travel internationally and work for free. Recipients of voluntourism do not have access to virtuous volunteering opportunities and must remain passive beneficiaries of charity. The voluntourism industry not only exploits racialised and class division between volunteers and recipients, it requires and reinforces it.
There is an inherent tension between economic gain and child-centred policies. Profit making orphanages obstruct the development of child-centred solutions such as community-based and foster care models. Child welfare should be considered separately from tourism and capitalist motives and situated within cultural contexts. Many different organisations and individuals are complicit in the exploitation of children through orphanage tourism, including entrepreneurs who set up for-profit orphanages and criminal gangs trafficking vulnerable children. But it is demand from tourists which fuels the industry and it would be negligent to downplay the complicity of tourists supporting the industry, regardless of their intentions.
Heeding advice from activists and NGOs, governments are beginning to clamp down on orphanage tourism. In 2009, the UN General Assembly endorsed guidelines which state that residential care should only be considered as a last resort and committed to the elimination of large institutions, indicating a new global direction. In 2018, Australia became the first country to recognise orphanage trafficking as a specific form of modern-day slavery. Following in Australia’s footsteps, the UK Department for International Development explicitly stated that it would not fund orphanages or institutions earlier this year. Along with many NGOs and charities, I welcome DFID’s commitment not to fund orphanages or institutions, but this is the beginning of complex conversations around ethical volunteer tourism which concerns children. Marketing short-term opportunities to volunteer directly with children, treats them as commodities and markets them as tourist attractions. Unqualified and unscreened volunteers are not able to pay to volunteer with children in the UK, why then should it be acceptable for them to volunteer with children in other countries?
Meg is a human rights advocate, focussing on workers’ rights, children rights and LGBTQ rights. Her background includes working to end sexual exploitation of children and young people in the UK and working with marginalised groups in Cambodia. She is particularly interested in the intersection between development, tourism and human rights. The featured image shows Meg doing research in rural Cambodia.