Fake orphanages proliferate to meet tourist demand
Operators in developing countries exploit local children to scam well-intentioned Westerners
Do you know how much it costs to send your daughter to volunteer in an orphanage in Cambodia, Vietnam or even parts of Africa? About $8000. That’s for 10 days and it doesn’t cover the airfares. She’ll sleep on a bunk in a shared room, she’ll eat noodles and she’ll plant vegetables surrounded by beaming, barefoot children. She will probably love it, so much so that you’ll get sick of hearing about how meaningful it all was.
Sadly, in many cases, she will have been scammed.
As tough as this is for Australian parents to accept, many of the orphanages in the Third World aren’t real. They’ve been set up like zoos, specifically to enable your cherished teenager to visit. The kids aren’t even orphans. They have parents, they’re just not allowed to see them. They have to smile and dance for delighted Western volunteers instead.
And now, finally, it’s coming to an end.
Much of the credit for peeling off the lid on the scam that is orphanage tourism goes to a young Australian advocate, Leigh Mathews. She’s older and wiser now, but at 22 she went to Cambodia as a backpacker and, like so many before her, she soon became a orphanage volunteer.
“I was so affected by the street children,” she says. “And there were signs in all the cafes urging Australians to become volunteers in the orphanage. It was like something you were expected to do. And I did it, and I found it a very uncomfortable experience.
“It was obvious that many of the children weren’t orphans. But you try to push that away and tell yourself they are still better off. And I did that for quite a few years, but then you can’t ignore it any more. The number of orphanages was growing so fast and we all knew why: it was mainly to meet demand from Western tourists.
“It was hard, but I had to face the truth, which is that a big part of the orphanage problem in Cambodia is demand from Australians for an orphanage experience. Young people, especially, want that nice feeling you get when you are helping poor children.
“But we weren’t helping children. They were being taken from their parents and raised by strangers. They were being institutionalised to make us feel good.”
The Cambodian government confirms this, saying the number of orphanages within its borders has increased by a staggering 75 per cent since 2005, which is roughly when Western tourists started to arrive.
Taking care of orphaned children, like riding an elephant in Thailand or watching a dancing bear in Vietnam, has become a tourist attraction.
Leigh returned to Australia in 2008 determined to address the problem. She formed a group called Rethink Orphanages, which started lobbying Australian politicians, and travel companies that send Australian students to orphanages across the world.
On Wednesday, the largest of them, World Challenge, whose website is covered with pictures of well-meaning Aussie kids visiting the poor in Cambodia, announced it was out of the orphanage game, with global managing director Pete Fletcher saying the company had a “do no harm” policy that must extend to poor children.
“Orphanage tourism can drive child trafficking,” he says. “By ceasing to visit orphanages, we are opting to end our contribution to this cycle of demand.” Leigh is delighted. “The point we made to them was that the number of orphanages in Cambodia will continue to go up as long as tourists are pouring into Cambodia,” she says.
“Maybe there are people who think that is OK because the children are very poor and in the orphanage, they get well fed or they learn English.
“That is what the parents of the children are often told: they will have a better life in the orphanage — but it’s just not true.
“The ideal arrangement for any child is to be with their parents, not trying to get affection from a roster of strangers.”
Children who live in orphanages often can’t make sense of why they’ve been sent away from their families. Across time they learn to kiss and hug the volunteers, and they may be encouraged to do so since that makes the experience better for the Australian schoolkids. They also may be asked to perform cultural dances or sing for cheers and applause.
The cuter the children are, the better they do.
The smaller they are, the better they do.
Nobody is really sure what happens to them when they grow up.
Some travel companies play up the positive benefits of the volunteer experience, but sometimes it’s just about making rich kids feel good. Go to Facebook and you will easily find young Westerners talking about the way their trip to an orphanage filled with HIV-afflicted youngsters changed their own outlook on life. Most don’t realise the damage the industry does.
They are being exploited and so are the Cambodians, and anyone can see why: orphanage visits, like elephant slaughter for ivory, are an unpalatable but still lucrative business.
Rethink Orphanages says the “voluntourism” industry — volunteer tourists — is worth about $170 billion a year globally and Australians, being big-hearted, well-meaning and, most important, well off, create much of the demand for an orphanage experience. About 14 per cent of Australian schools have an association with an orphanage, and at least half of all Australian universities advertise orphanage placements as part of their international volunteering opportunities.
Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, who represents Western Australia, had her eyes opened to the reality of orphan tourism when she went to Cambodia last year with advocacy agency Save the Children.
“I was horrified to learn that or- phanages are proliferating globally to accommodate and exploit our desire to volunteer with children overseas,” she tells The Australian. “Children should never be tourist attractions.”
Reynolds says the vast majority of children she met were not orphans, with 80 per cent having at least one living parent.
“Sadly, many have been trafficked and provided with false papers and become paper orphans,” she says. “But it’s not just the millions of children in many of these institutions who are being exploited, it’s Australians too. I was shocked to realise that WA parents were in effect paying child traffickers to provide an opportunity for their own children to feel good about themselves.”
The more she travelled, the more she was able to see “that orphanage tourism is the systematic exploitation of vulnerable children for profit”. And once she had seen, she had to act, establishing a parliamentary inquiry into all aspects of modern slavery, including orphan tourism.
“Australians are incredibly generous and I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving their time and money to those who are less fortunate,” she says. But it’s important that we, in the wealthy West, do no harm.
Everyone is aware that for some children, especially those with disabilities, an orphanage is the only answer, at least for now; and everyone is likewise wary of cutting the support immediately.
“If the money dries up, the operators are likely to abandon the children,” Reynolds says.
Mathews agrees, saying: “Nobody is advocating for the wholesale, overnight closure of orphanages.
“The key is to look at the implication of withdrawal and then develop strategy to do it ethically and safely. The point is, we can’t keep creating more and more orphanages to meet Western demand.
“There is an entire industry built up around the volunteers. They are trafficking children in to meet demand from Westerners who want to take care of them. It’s unacceptable.
“I’m really proud of the fact that Australia at a government level is leading the campaign against this.”
There will be some who mourn the loss of the orphan tours because they were such an eye-opener for our coddled kids. But they can still learn from this experience.
The world can be an ugly place. Some people will do anything for a buck. You won the lottery when you were born or became Australian. Now, go forth and do some real good.
The kids aren’t even orphans. They have parents but are not allowed to see them