There are approximately 400 residential care institutions in Cambodia, housing over 40,000 children. Despite what you would rightly assume about the children in these institutions being orphans, approximately 80% of them have at least one living parent.
Although the number of genuine orphans fell between 2005 and 2015, the number of orphanages increased by 60%. I think you know where I am heading with this; the opening of orphanages was fuelled by a demand from tourists and voluntourists alike. I, myself visited an orphanage in 2009 after feeling a yearning to help poor, orphaned children; I volunteered at one and I came very close to working at one until I was told the true story of what went on.
It is a natural urge to want to help children without parents, however, these desires we have are creating a system where children are separated from their families and brought to orphanages in order to generate income from foreigners.
Many orphanages are run like businesses. They either buy or rent children from their parents or promise the desperate parents a better life for their children, which most of the time, isn’t the case. These business orphanages are then often kept in bad conditions so that they can generate more income from unsuspecting tourists. Put your kids in the shoes of these ‘orphans’. Would you want your children to grow up in an institution where visitors come day in and day out to play with them, take photos, and generally treat them like a tourist attraction? Do you know what the effect of orphanages on children are? Firstly, evidence shows that children, particularly those under the age of three, are at risk of permanent, developmental damage when they are not cared for in a family setting. They also often find it difficult to function properly in society when they eventually leave the orphanage. Children raised in orphanages are 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record, and 500 times more likely to commit suicide.
In late 2018, Australia became the first country to recognise orphanage trafficking as a form of modern slavery. More than 57 per cent of Australian universities advertise orphanage placements, and 14 per cent of our schools visit, volunteer or fundraise for these institutions, not to mention the number of individual travellers who visit and volunteer at them. The harm that orphanages can cause are coming into the spotlight, however, the demand is still there.
On my latest trip back to Siem Reap, I was visiting a rural temple when I saw a busload of tourists parked outside an orphanage adjacent to the temple. They were greeted by ‘orphaned’ children who gave them fruit, and I saw the cameras come out, with the tourists capturing plenty of photos of these vulnerable children. By the time I had finished up at the temple 15 minutes later, the bus was gone. This quick trip may have been seen as effective to the tourists, but the damage it did to the children can last a lifetime.
Instead of supporting orphanages, support organisations that are advocates for community-based care, ones that reintegrate children back into their families or are working to keep families together. As ‘Orphanages No’ advocates, breaking up families and institutionalising poor children is not the solution to child poverty.
To learn more about the risk of orphanages, visit Rethink Orphanages.
This was an excerpt from my manifesto, ‘It’s Not About Me’. Royalties are donated to Human and Hope.