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Should I visit an orphanage?

Posted: May 1, 2013

Visiting an orphanage has become part of the itinerary for many travelers, especially in places such as Cambodia, some of which promote themselves as a ‘tourist attraction’. We asked Luke Gracie from Friends International to explain some of the issues travelers should consider.

There are quite a lot of orphanages across Cambodia. There are also quite a lot of people and organisations, like the one I work for, that suggest people think twice about visiting, supporting or working in orphanages and to consider the harm they can cause. Amongst all this noise of ‘anti-orphanage’ posters and flyers and ‘pro-orphanage’ advertisements for orphanage tourism and people with Facebook profile shots of themselves hugging Cambodian youngsters; it’s very fair to ask, ‘what’s the big deal with orphanages in Cambodia?’.

Well, to put it bluntly children do not belong in orphanages; they are highly damaging and dangerous institutions. Children belong with their family or another family-like situation if they can’t stay with their direct family.

What’s so bad about orphanages?
75% of children in Cambodian orphanages are not actually orphans, as they have at least one living parent. In fact calling these places ‘orphanages’ is incorrect as it implies the children have a need to be there. In most cases there are numerous other options for marginalized children, such as living with extended family members, people in the community or foster care options. The act of removing a child from his or her family is extreme; it is at the absolute pointy-end of child protection services, the drastic last resort when everything else has failed. It’s certainly nothing to be taken lightly.

How do tourists fit into the equation?
Orphanage Tourism is big business in Cambodia. Just spend a few hours walking or travelling via tuktuk in Cambodia’s tourist hubs and you’ll be invited to visit numerous orphanages or see orphanage tourism flyers posted up on boards in travel agencies and guesthouses. More disturbing still, you could come across the children themselves handing out flyers spuiking their ‘home’ or performing dances in Siem Reap’s infamous ‘Pub Street’ at 11.00pm, 12.00am, 1.00am, 2.00am and so on…

It is worth taking a step back and thinking about the situation actually occurring here. These are highly vulnerable kids, irrespective of whether they are actually orphans, and some people see no problem visiting their place of residence, hugging them, taking photos of them, and playing with them. It is literally placing children as a tourist attraction, a commodity that is viewed and enjoyed like a temple, market, or zoo animal.

When meeting people who are interested in visiting orphanages in Cambodia, I ask them if they would do the same in their home country. What would the response be if you went to the social welfare department in London, Sydney, Berlin, or Tokyo and said you wanted to go and have a look at the residential care centres of highly vulnerable and traumatised kids so you have some great stories to tell your friends, see how the kids live, give them a few hugs and take some fantastic photos for your facebook page? They of course would say no. Most people would never even consider it to be acceptable behavior in their home country.

Should people still decide to visit or volunteer in orphanages, they should know they could be contributing to harm of the children. The justification of “well, they are there anyway and I’ll bring a smile to their face” simply does not hold water; people who visit orphanages are contributing to a broken and dangerous system that places significant risks and harm on children.

Profiteering orphanages

A lot of orphanages in Cambodia are run by people who genuinely have the best intentions for protecting children, but implement that ‘protection’ in a way quite different from what Friends-International advocates. There are unfortunately also a lot of orphanages that are run purely as a business, they are malicious institutions where children are used for profit and conditions are kept in a pretty dilapidated state to warrant pity and eventual donations from well-meaning donors. The orphanages that look for tourist visitors and allow outsiders in without any child protection checks generally fall into the latter category. Visitors giving money to these centres (which the children rarely see any of) is perpetuating this system; they simply would not operate if they could not make money out of it.

Attachment disorder
Working in Child Protection in Cambodia you hear a lot of stories about people visiting orphanages and about how we “just don’t understand” because “you didn’t see how happy the kids were when we arrived, they were hugging me and the cutest little girl wouldn’t stop holding my hand” etc. etc. Well, often times that is a blatant sign that the children are experiencing attachment disorder. Forming attachments with care-givers is an integral part of early childhood development; it contributes greatly to cognitive and emotional development. Children growing up in group residential centres often don’t form these attachments because they are removed from their families and house parents in an orphanage simply can’t replicate the high levels of love and attention children truly need. The reason the children are so eager to touch and hold you is that they are starved for attention; then in two hours, or two weeks, the visitor leaves. Imagine how damaging that is for the child.

What can tourists do instead?
Well, a lot! But a caveat first; sorry, but none of the below suggestions are going to give you the warm and fuzzy feelings of visiting cute Cambodian children.

  • Just don’t visit! - Removing the demand for orphanages by not visiting them or providing them with money will go a long way in reducing the supply. 
  • Tell your friends - Your words make a big difference! If you agree with the points I’ve made above, tell your friends and let them know about the issue. It’s integral that we get the message out there about the dangers of orphanage tourism. 
  • Avoid tourist operators that send people to orphanages. Where you spend your money makes a big impact, support operators that run child-friendly and sustainable tours. 
  • Support ethical businesses. Make a difference by dining in restaurants that provide training to marginalized kids, buy products where the profits are reinvested back into communities and support businesses that pay fair wages and provide good conditions for their workers. 
  • Give blood. This may sounds exceptionally boring and will certainly make for some pretty terrible facebook photos of your holiday, but it’s important. You want to do a quick and easy activity that will make a real difference to people’s lives and is desperately needed in Cambodia? Give blood! The National Blood Transfusion Centre in Phnom Penh is always very low on blood supplies and offers clean and safe facilities for donations. 
  • Enjoy your holiday! You’re on holiday, who doesn’t love a holiday? You simply visiting Cambodia (assuming you’re behaving in a safe and ethical way) is helping stimulate a growing tourism market which employs a lot of people, you don’t need to ‘help out’ or ‘give back’, just enjoy yourself and the wonderful attractions that Cambodia has to offer!

Luke Gracie
Alternative Care Manager
Friends-International

 

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