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Tourists are fuelling child poverty and family separation

Angkor Wat, reflectedOrphanage tourism has become big business in Cambodia. Tourists swarm to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh where adverts in hotels or ‘friendly’ tuk tuk drivers lure them to bogus orphanages. Most of the children are not even orphans. The visitors’ misguided good intentions lead to a sustained cycle of poverty and neglect for the very children they think they are helping.

“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…’,” said one Cambodian resident. (Read more)

Many of these children experience exploitation, abuse and neglect. They often end up living on the streets and many never see their families again.

Tourists are fuelling this orphanage ‘industry’. Over the past five years tourism in Cambodia has boomed and volunteering is becoming an increasingly popular holiday past time as people seek to give something back to the communities that they visit.

According to UNICEF, 72% of the children in Cambodia’s orphanages have at least one living parent and many more have living grandparents.

“The number of orphaned and vulnerable children is decreasing, but recent years have seen a steady increase in the number of residential institutions,” said Richard Bridle, UNICEF representative. In fact, there has been a 75% increase of ‘orphanages’ in just five years and the number of children in residential care has almost doubled.

But orphanages promise better education and life opportunities than their own families can give them, a tempting offer for those who live in extreme poverty. However, the ‘orphans’ rarely experience the benefits they have been promised and are often kept in poor living conditions in order to secure more donations from sympathetic visitors.

Residential care poses multiple problems and exposes children to serious risks including physical and emotional abuse, and exploitation.

Most orphanages don’t have child protection policies in place. They allow tourists to visit and interact with children without any background checks. Anyone can come in.

aspara dancersIn addition to separation from their families, these children experience multiple emotional attachments as short-term volunteers come and go.

“Research has shown that the constant turnover of caregivers can harm children’s development,” said Bridle. Relationships are built and then destroyed in a matter of days, or even hours.

Delays or abnormalities in speech development, brain development and physical growth are common. Removing a child from their family can result in an inability to reintegrate with society later in life.

According to Friends International, the vast majority of orphanages in Cambodia exploit children to raise money. “This is done by making children perform Apsara dancing or other shows,” said Marie Courcel, Alternative Care Project Manager for the children’s charity, “[They are] sent by their orphanage to tourist spots, often at night, to solicit money from them. The negative impact on the child being removed from families and communities far outweighs any immediate perceived benefit that orphanage care can provide.”

The trouble with tourism

Kristina Roe, Communications Manager at travel company, Responsible Travel, explains the increase in short-term volunteering holidays.

“We are seeing more and more people choosing to take shorter volunteer trips as opposed to the traditional, longer ‘year out’. This is partly due to people not being able to get long stints of leave from work. It’s also due to the fact that, here in the UK, the Government has increased tuition fees so students are looking to get started at university as soon as possible in order to avoid the higher fees and, subsequently, they’re not taking gap years in the same way that they used to.

“Ten years ago, volunteering either involved taking two years off in developing countries, or spending a weekend pulling prams out of canals closer to home. More recently, one to three week trips have been created, many of which combine time spent volunteering with an opportunity to travel and visit the main areas of interest as a tourist. Consequently, there is now a huge range of projects and trips available with a vast number of companies and charities.

“The concept of volunteering has become more accessible. Travellers are looking for more rewarding forms of travel. They want to really experience places and cultures, and give something back in the process too.”

CambodiaBut not all of these opportunities are genuine. Leah Holzworth, a former volunteer, said: “With over 300 ‘orphanages’ in Siem Reap province alone, I would say most are not run properly… It’s a huge problem and I think it continues to get worse as more people realise they can make money from it.” (Read more)

According to UNICEF, between 2005 and 2008 the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 65% and tourism seems to be the main cause for this trend.

“Tourists play a major role in residential care funding. In surveys, 92% said they would donate money to a residential care facility. This contrasts with surveys that show tourists favour living with a relative above living in residential care as the best option for orphans,” said Courcel. “Tourists support family-based care in theory, but in practice donate funds to residential care.”

The donation black hole

In Cambodia there is no legal requirement for orphanages to account for funds raised through donations. This lack of transparency means there is no guarantee that money is going towards child welfare at all.

Courcel said: “Issues of corruption and transparent money management have been ongoing challenges for Cambodia for a number of years. It is impossible to know how money is being used and if money donated is reaching the recipients for whom the financial assistance was intended.”

Investing in families

A countrywide lack of social services means that families often feel that they have no choice but to place their child in orphanage care.

Over a third of Cambodians live below the poverty level with many families struggling to provide food and education for their children. There is little governmental help available and primary school education fees are high.

“Faced with these realities,” said Courcel, “families choose to send children into residential care primarily for education. However, research has found that many children in residential care do not study at the appropriate grade level, and some are even illiterate.”

UN International guidelines on Alternative Care and Cambodian National Policies on Alternative Care both state that family-based care is considered to be in the best interest of the child.

“UNICEF believes a child’s first line of defence is his or her family,” said Bridle. “Institutionalisation should be a last resort.”

The Cambodian government is planning to move away from a process of institutionalised care and invest time, energy and money into strengthening families and communities to be better equipped to care for children themselves. Money invested in maintaining the family also has a larger reach, positively impacting siblings, parents, wider family and community rather than the individual child alone.

However, Courcel warns: “By continuing to support institutions that reinforce separation of families, this aim will never be reached, leaving Cambodian families and communities in a damaging cycle of relinquishment, offering no long-term solutions. Supporting the current conception of orphanage care in Cambodia undermines these processes and ultimately renders Cambodian children, families and communities more vulnerable by maintaining a negative cycle of vulnerability and poverty.”

Letting locals take the lead

Responsible Travel organise the annual global Responsible Tourism Awards. They argue that volunteering in orphanages can be beneficial to the children in residential care.

“As far as I’m aware, we haven’t had any problems with scam orphanages. We screen our volunteer programmes very carefully so tend to avoid them,” said Kristina Roe, Communications Manager. “We actually only have one trip to an orphanage in Cambodia. The focus of this trip is education and skills development for six to 18 year olds. It’s all about broadening horizons, increasing confidence by spending time with new people and being able to practise English.

“I think the key issue with this is that volunteers are not replacing care workers. We do not accept trips where volunteers would replace experienced, local labour. I would be wary of any trip where volunteers are expected to work as untrained care workers. Tourism that maximises the positive impacts for the communities and environment in Cambodia is a good thing.”

M’Lop Tapang is a programme for street children in Cambodia. They rarely accept foreign volunteers at all, preferring to make use of the skills of locals.

“The only exceptions would be graphic designers and other professionals such as doctors that train our staff, rarely would they be working directly with children,” said Maggie Eno, Co-founder and Coordinator of the charity. “Professional Cambodians have far more to offer. [They] understand the setting, culture and language. That’s what we are here to do, invest in local people so they can help themselves and their clients independently.”

Friends International also requires volunteers to have specialist expertise or to carry out a specific duty that will reduce the workload of the existing staff. “Volunteers do not work directly with children,” said Courcel, “but with local staff. The objective is to build local staff capacity, rather than do a job instead of local staff.”

The right people in the right setting

Eno believes that volunteering can be extremely beneficial with “the right people in the right setting” and adds that potential volunteers should, “follow an organisation’s needs – not their own personal ones – and respect local staff.”

Friends International advise tourists to refuse any offers to visit orphanages. They encourage people to volunteer with or donate to programmes that support and promote family and community-based care, reintegration of children into family and community-based care, and provision of social services to vulnerable children and their families within a community setting, programmes that work to prevent family separation.

“Volunteers who wish to harness their good intentions and assist Cambodia towards positive development have the responsibility to make informed decisions about where they contribute,” said Courcel. “This means digging a little deeper into issues at hand.”

The ChildSafe Network was launched in 2005 in Cambodia by Friends International and offers some useful tips for travellers who are considering making a financial or physical commitment to an organisation.

Responsible Travel advises that all volunteer projects should be based on a real local need and work in partnership with local people in order to transfers skills and ensure the project’s longevity, “rather than being dreamed up by a travel company’s marketing department in the UK”.

Roe said: “The organisation should be totally transparent about the cost of the trip and where that money goes. You should ask to see an independent report on the benefits of the project to local people and/or environment. Ask lots of questions, talk to previous volunteers about their experience and ensure you choose a programme that matches your skills and interests.”

So, if you plan to volunteer, do your research. Be wary and ask lots of questions. Don’t visit orphanages, but help by promoting family and community-based care for children. The focus of any project should be on benefiting the local community – not you, and not one of the many profit driven scams.

Concern about orphanage tourism is growing amongst children’s charities. Friends International will soon launch a campaign against orphanage tourism and UNICEF has been supporting a ‘study of attitudes towards residential care in Cambodia’ which will be launched by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation in mid-September.

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About Katherine Latham

Copywriter, journalist, writer.


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