Are tourists fuelling the orphanage industry?

The boom of the orphanage tourism in CambodiaEvery year thousands of volunteers and tourists are lured to giving love to children in need around the developing word.

In the past decade the number of orphan children has declined worldwide, however the increasing number of orphanages in many developing countries matches the rising numbers of tourists.

In many parts of the world orphanages have become a tourist attraction and a ‘bucket list’ volunteering opportunity. The orphan child has become a pseudo commodity for volunteers who are lured into giving love to children in need. The orphanage business has seen a “gap” in the market and is objectifying children all around the developing world as a product and principal element of a packaged holiday “orphanage voluntourism” and this needs to stop.

Nobody doubts the good intention of the donors, travellers, and volunteers who give time or money to orphanages. However we believe that orphanage tourism, and volunteerism are fuelling the demand for “orphans”, and so driving the unnecessary separation of children from their families.

In Cambodia the number of orphans have halved and yet the number of orphanages has doubled – 75% of children in these institutions are not in fact orphans. In Ghana the figure is as high as 90%. The Convention on the Rights of the Child state clearly that the institutionalisation of vulnerable children should be a last resort, and not a final solution. 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.

Many institutions are wholly inadequate to meet the complex needs and demands of childhood care and development, with untrained or unqualified staff, poor conditions, or a lack of child protection policies. In such institutions children are at risk of neglect, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Child rights may be further violated, and child safety jeopardized, by orphanages that allow visitors or un-vetted volunteers to spend time with children, or that send orphans out onto the streets to canvas for donations, often late at night.

The often unregulated institutions have become a booming business. It is growing at a staggering rate and in tourist destinations, such as Bali and Cambodia, it seems to have doubled in 5 years, matching the rising numbers of tourists when the numbers of orphan children has almost halved.

Furthermore, there appears to be little awareness of the psychological damage being done by the revolving door of volunteers in such institutions. Children form endless series of new relationships with strangers, to then be left traumatised by short-term volunteering projects. Forming emotional bonds with visitors who then disappear suddenly.

  • Emotional loss: Institutionalised children, especially babies may not receive enough eye and physical contact and stimulation to promote adequate social or cognitive development; Furthermore they experience constant abandonment causing low self esteem, and lack of self worth created by “hugging&playing” volunteers and visitors.
  • Exposed to abuse: Unregulated institutions receive volunteers who are neither asked for references nor screened for any convictions; unsupervised children are left with walk-in visitors and even left to leave the institutions with visitors.
  • Exploitation: Some reports suggest that children are made to work to make up for orphanages expenses, whilst other express serious concern that children are underserved to attract benefactors and donations.
  • Gaps on learning: Due to the lack of consistency on the teaching, accents and different approaches to teaching constantly changing who in many cases are not trained teachers.
  • Unfortunately many orphanages are run purely as a business where children are used for profit and conditions are kept in a dilapidated state to warrant donations from well-meaning donors and volunteers. Every day children are being unnecessarily separated from their families (90% of children in orphanages in Ghana are not orphans; 75% in Cambodia) and orphanages are literally the last place children should end up.

Furthermore orphanages are financially unviable as a long-term solution, costing far more per child than alternative, community-based care. A recent study in sub-Saharan Africa showed that institutional care can cost up to six times as much as alternative child care mechanisms. Yet many donors would rather donate to orphanages, where they can see an actual child, build an emotional ‘relationship’, and feel that they know exactly where their donation is going. Better, more appropriate community based alternatives, that are more child focused, rather than donor focused, are all too often overlooked.

Whilst we appreciate that many well-meaning volunteers may wish to volunteer at an orphanage our view is that looking after vulnerable children should be undertaken by local, full-time, professional staff and not by short-term volunteers, no matter how skilled or qualified.

Equally the demand for volunteering placements is driving the need for ‘orphans’ and orphanages at the expense of better and more appropriate child care so we believe that tour operators should stop sending volunteers and tourists to orphanages altogether. We believe that volunteering with vulnerable children requires time, training and proper supervision, as well as appropriate vetting procedures.

There are currently over 30 organisations sending volunteers to orphanages from the UK. We urge tourists not to visit orphanages, but to seek out alternative ways that they can benefit local people. Furthermore, we do not believe that at orphanages should be marketed by tour operators and believe that in most cases volunteering overseas with vulnerable children is inappropriate.

Please sign our petition today and help us protect vulnerable children all around the world from abuse and neglect.

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