“They always said they were coming back, but they never came back.”
These are the words of Sinet Chan in its letter to the Australian government. As a child, Chan spent years in a Cambodian orphanage after losing both parents to HIV. Describing her experiences during her formative years there, Chan said she was forced to entertain the constant stream of foreign visitors by singing songs and playing with them to encourage donations to the orphanage. “The volunteers were nice people, trying to help us,” Chan wrote, “But now I realize that was a form of exploitation, using us to generate funds.”
According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, half of the orphanages in Cambodia are located in two cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, both of which are popular tourist destinations. As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily suspended the flow of tourists to orphanages, the practice of orphanage tourism must end.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund find that around the world, at least 2.7 million children live in residential care institutions such as orphanages. Even so, UNICEF also acknowledged that this figure is likely an underestimate as it does not fully take into account children living in private institutions. According to statistics released in 2018, around 8 million children were life in orphanages and other institutions, a figure comparable to the population of New York City at the time.
The introduction of foreign tourism is particularly shocking in this context. Orphanage tourism has its roots in “voluntary tourism”, a tourism model that claims to combine tourism and volunteering. The quest of tourists to “do good” has generated considerable interest in local orphanages as travel and excursion destinations. By visiting such institutions, every tourist and volunteer automatically becomes a potential donor, whether they realize it or not.
While some have argued that this tourist presence is beneficial because it provides essential financial support, the expectations attached to this dynamic perceived as donor-recipient could have important consequences. Indeed, UNICEF warns that children life in orphanages and other residential care institutions were often forced to participate in activities intended to appeal to tourists, as Sinet Chan described.
In addition, data suggests that a significant percentage of children living in these institutions have parents, relatives and families who would likely be able to care for their children if only they had access to more supports and resources. . In Nepal, for example, up to 85% of children resident in orphanages have at least one living parent. Similar figures have been reported in other countries such as Haiti, where families focused towards poverty can place their children in orphanages in the hope that these institutions will give them a better future.
Thus, putting an end to orphanage tourism requires action at all levels. Although the governments of some countries, including Cambodia, have initiated efforts to close operating orphanages, official communication around this issue remains scarce. At the national and international levels, greater accountability is needed to create and enforce stricter regulations that support families, prevent separations, close illicit institutions, and protect children from exploitation.
Governments could also officially recognize the negative impacts of orphanage tourism. In Australia, for example, the Explanatory Memorandum of the Modern Slavery Bill 2018 refers to exploitation of children in orphanages as an offense under the Australian Criminal Code. Establishing similar regulations in other countries could also be helpful in educating tourists and preventing them from contributing to child-endangering situations.
As pandemic travel regulations gradually become less stringent, would-be tourists should avoid participating in activities that may harm children in orphanages. Especially since orphanages are often featured and recommended on travel sites, tourists should be aware of the consequences of their actions, even if they come from good intentions. To better support children who live in orphanages, visitors could instead to follow recommendations from organizations like UNICEF.
Ultimately, children living in orphanages are not tourist attractions, and orphanage tourism is morally problematic as it exploits both the vulnerable situation of children as well as the sympathy of potential donors. Although COVID-19 briefly interrupted the flow of tourism from orphanages, this practice must be stopped permanently.