Fake or­phan­ages pro­lif­er­ate to meet tourist de­mand

Op­er­a­tors in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries ex­ploit lo­cal chil­dren to scam well-in­ten­tioned Western­ers

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - CARO­LINE OVERINGTON

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.