“Orphanage tourism” leads to exploitation in Asia

Child protection and NGO workers are pleading with tourists and volunteers to stay away from orphanages in Cambodia, claiming so-called “orphanage tourism” damages the children and enables exploitation. 
They say that their growing presence damages children and allows exploitation of Orphans in Cambodia.
Writing on vice.com, child protection activist Sascha Kouvelis said that in 2012 alone, Cambodia was visited by 3.5 million tourists.
“So I guess someone was eventually bound to put two and two together and realize that the hundreds of orphanages throughout the country could be exploited into becoming a tourist attraction for the growing number of foreign visitors.”
The country’s orphanage boom began in the early 70s, when Pol Pot marauded around the country, intentionally splitting up villages, slaughtering families, and imprisoning the educated populace in an attempt to win the civil war. The tactic worked for Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, but left thousands of children displaced, so NGOs came flooding in to salvage the situation by building orphanages all over the country.
Thirty years later, Cambodia now boasts more than 500 orphanages—a figure that has doubled in the last decade, presumably because the large donations they receive are a much easier way to make money than actually working. Sadly, that nifty little ruse seems to have become public knowledge, and the exploitation of Cambodia’s orphans has turned into a booming, multimillion dollar industry.
Dr. Setan Lee, a Cambodian who lived through the Khmer Rouge era, has watched the spread of corruption through his country’s orphanages. There are Westerners who come to Cambodia under the pretence of helping orphans, Lee told Kouvelis, but “literally all they’re doing is fulfilling their own lusty lifestyles” by siphoning off the donations intended for the children into their own pockets.
Foster schemes and effective family planning are arguably much better alternatives to orphanages, but unfortunately neither of them exist to a sufficient extent in Cambodia, largely due to the country’s poor economy. According to Tara Winkler, founder of Cambodia’s Children’s Trust (CCT), it’s that same economy and “lack of alternative support” that’s making parents “feel forced to send their children away” to orphanages.
Tara continued, saying that there’s a common perception among Cambodian parents that, if they send their children to orphanages, they will be provided “an education, access to medical care, and better nutrition.” That perception now means that orphanages are no longer comprised of just orphans, but also children from poor families.
In fact, according to a 2011 UNICEF study, an estimated three out four children in Cambodia’s orphanages still have one living parent. That clearly seems to be dodging the definition of “orphan” a little, but those in charge couldn’t care less about stuff like definitions or, say, morality, because the more children in their care, the more donations they receive to pillage for their own ends. A well-intended scheme that has now become a loophole for the corrupt, with some orphanages even offering small sums of money to parents in exchange for their children.
A number of unlicensed orphanages are now popping up around Cambodia and starting to reel the kids in. They are all, Tara told Kouvelis, “operating without official registration and without essential documentation, like child protection policies.” So we can only guess what goes on behind closed doors, but Tara is certain that whatever it is, it’s deeply corrupt in some shape or form. Dr. Lee goes one step further, claiming that the children in these unlicensed orphanages are being “forced to do labor in jobs that they don’t want to do.” It’s Oliver Twist, only with exploitative, morally corrupt caretakers who ruin lives, rather than charismatic weirdos who teach you how to pickpocket.
Children in these orphanages are rarely given an education, instead being put to work until the tourists come to visit, when they’re wheeled out as bait for donations. Unsurprisingly, little of those donations end up being spent on their care. And it’s not only the physical toll on these children that’s worrisome, but the damaging emotional effects that come with your parents handing you over to a workhouse where you’re forced to live in worse conditions than you were at home.  

Last year, an Australian-run orphanage was closed down amid accusations of child abuse and child trafficking. The orphanage in question—the ominously named Love in Action—had “rescued” 21 children from the streets of Phnom Penh and, like many others, was unregistered. A week later, a director of another institution in the city of Siem Reap was arrested for sexually abusing two girls, one 11 years old, the other 12. His orphanage remains open, but is expected to be shut down.
The Cambodian government has introduced policies to impose minimum standards for child protection, but Luke Gracie, alternative care manager at the NGO Friends International in Phnom Penh, said it was struggling with implementation. There are still rogue institutions and a lack of enforcement around registration. Numerous institutions, including some with Australian links, have been accused of exploitation and abuse, reported the Guardian.
“It is quite simple in Cambodia for people, especially foreigners, to come in and set up an organisation, set up an orphanage, and either have it registered or not,” he said.
Visits from tourists and volunteers – known commonly as “orphanage tourism” – lend credibility to institutions and the numbers are increasing.
“It’s a big business in Cambodia,” said Gracie. Friends International frequently campaigns against the practice.
 “The really important message for all the tourists coming from Europe, from Australia, from the US, is that you are driving an industry that is incredibly abusive and exploitative of children.”Friends International’s Gracie said visitors needed educating about child protection.“People mean well, 99% of people feel they are doing something right and helping the children, providing them some fun… but our argument is that we suggest people think twice about it and think of the longer-term harm that they could be causing.”
Facts in brief
More than 50% of people in Cambodia are under 21 years old
Over one third of the population lives below the poverty line
Cambodia is ranked as 154th out of 178 countries in terms of corruption, whereby the powerful are able to further exploit those with less influence. Children inevitably fall victim to these power plays. Corruption acts as a major obstacle in the effective prosecution and punishment of child abusers.
The number of street children (estimated at 10,000 to 20,000) is increasing at a rate of 20 per cent per year. Factors as to why children are on the streets include poverty, domestic violence, rapid population growth, and rural-urban migration. Weaknesses in the education system encourage the supply of child labour and incidence of street children. Additionally, in 2009 there were 27 forced evictions of slums (involving 23,000 people) in Cambodia, inevitably contributing to the population of street families, and children without adequate shelter.
According to the National AIDS Authority (NAA), there are 80,000 orphans and vulnerable children living in Cambodia as a result of the AIDS epidemic.
UNESCO estimates that there are 700,000 economically active children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the country. Nearly three quarters of these children have dropped out of school. 
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