A resident of Cambodia who preferred not to be named has witnessed the increase in orphanage tourism over recent years.
“I’ve watched the number of orphanages grow, and the number of volunteers grow. It creates a lot of problems,” she said.
“The people in these orphanages go out to the countryside and find families that have six or seven children. They tell them, ‘Send your kid to the city and we’ll take care of them. They’ll get a good education funded by foreigners. We know you can’t afford to take care of your kids so this place will help. No, I want the cutest…’
“Do the children get the things they are promised? Oh, no. You show up and you see a dance show and you think you’re lucky because there’s a dance show on. Well no, there’s a dance show now and in two hours and in another two hours.
“There are orphanages who push their kids through bar street at ten at night with signs that say ‘visit our orphanage for free’. This is Bar Street, so people are drinking. It’s not the type of place that kids should be. Last week I saw an orphanage that had them all dressed up in little costumes and one had a drum. They had created a scripted play designed to pull at your heartstrings.
“They tell tourists, ‘we need $500 to build a toilet’. Then they take $500 from you and from the next person and from the next person… And then eventually they’ll build the toilet and send the photo to all seven of you.
“Foreigners on vacation are fuelling the growth of this industry. This is an industry. These kids have parents. They could be in foster care. They could be living with families.
“And they’re funding really horrible places too that are harming these children and people don’t know how to discern between them because they are just visiting for a few days or weeks. How could they know?”
She described how many of the ‘orphans’ spend time at one or more of these institutions and then run away to live on the streets. “That’s what a lot of the homeless children in Cambodia will tell you, that they’ve been in horrible places where they have felt unsafe and that actually living on the street is better than living in some of those places.
“Any orphanage that will let you walk in off the street is not a good orphanage. If this was your child, what safety standards and consistency of care would you want for them? Rather than continuing to fuel institutional care, we should be funding support for whole families, which is typically cheaper than institutionalisation, and allows children to stay with their families. We need to quell this desire for people to visit orphanages. That needs to stop.”