How well-meaning tourists are fuelling the rise of fraudulent orphanages around the world.
In 2006, Conor Grennan had been volunteering in a Nepalese orphanage for months, caring for children by feeding them, getting them ready for school and generally providing them with the care they could no longer receive from their parents. Then he discovered the truth: the “orphans” he was caring for actually had families.
“The moment that we learned that these kids weren’t orphans was when we saw the mother of one of the kids walking down the path and we recognised her because she looked identical to two of the boys in the home,” says Mr Grennan.
They brought the woman inside and she told them how her children had been taken under false pretence by child traffickers, then abandoned in Kathmandu where the founder of the orphanage rescued them. They had been living in the orphanage for years.
“Our whole world flipped upside, knowing these were not orphans, these were children who had parents,” says Mr Grennan.
And these children weren’t a one-off. Research conducted by the Nepalese Government found two out of three children in orphanages in Nepal are not actually orphans. It was this realisation that many children in orphanages actually still had families, but no one was working to bring them together, that prompted Conor to the charity Next Generation Nepal (NGN), which aims to reconnect the lost children of Nepal with their families, often after years of separation.
This separation is not caused by death, but rather a high rate of child trafficking. It’s hard to put a number on the amount of children trafficked, however, according to NGN, the number is well into the thousands.
These children are displaced from their families in rural villages and relocated in orphanages in urban and tourist areas because unfortunately, it’s the tourists who are inadvertently funding the traffickers, and their money making business – the orphanages.
Martin Punaks, Country Director of NGN told The Newsroom: “Well-intentioned foreign volunteers and donors are unknowingly fuelling child trafficking when they give donations to ‘orphanages’ in Nepal. They are creating a demand for children to be taken from their families, institutionalised and presented as orphans or destitute. The children are being used as fundraising tools to make a profit for the ‘orphanage’ owners. Without realising it, the orphanage volunteers are actually causing more harm than good”.
NGN even received reports of orphanage managers asking traffickers to bring them children, specifically because they have foreign donors willing to support their children’s home. They have seen similar cases in which orphanage owners would deliberately keep children in destitute conditions in order to attract further donations. In this way, charitable donations and volunteering are having the very opposite effect from that which is intended.
The distressing fact is that these are not isolated incidents. Similar stories have been reported in other countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Haiti, where orphanage managers have admitted to keeping children thin because it encourages foreigners to spend more money.
It’s hard to say where in the world though it’s happening most. “Our understanding is that where there is a high concentration of tourists and attractive spots for volunteers, there are a higher amount of these [fraudulent] orphanages,” explains a spokesperson for Orphanages: Not The Solution, an organisation in Cambodia where 74 per cent of children in orphanages are not actually orphans.
The organisation was set up by a group of people living and working in Cambodia concerned about the proliferation of orphanages in the country, “most of which should not exist”. While they recognise the intentions of volunteers and donors are good, they advise that financial contributions are only exacerbating the problem, fueling the demand for orphans and thereby driving the unnecessary separation of children from their families. “We have seen the number of orphanages increase as a direct result of the boom in tourism. We need to change travellers perceptions and the whole volunteering paradigm,” says a statement on their website.
So what is being done to shut down fake orphanages globally?
Not a lot at an international level it would seem given no laws have been introduced to shut down these businesses. However, national government measures are being taken in some countries at least to improve the quality of life of the children. This month, the arrest of a monk who allegedly tortured a nine-year-old boy in Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey over a period of several months prompted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for more safeguards against violence against children in orphanages.
A spokesperson from Orphanages: Not The Solution told The Newsroom that they welcome the proposed measures, but say these are merely bandaid measures. Until laws are in place to protect the children, it seems change comes down to the traveller.
Few tourists or volunteers are qualified to interact with traumatised or vulnerable children. “If you are not a childcare professional, social worker, or child psychologist, well-versed in local culture and language, you need to ask yourself what value you really bring,” the spokesperson said.
Instead, the organisation recommends raising funds for a drop-in centre, foster care program, scholarship fund or education program, or supporting organisations that help reintegrate children who have been institutionalised.
Australian website Smart Traveller, provided by the government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, warns Australians considering volunteering with children should be mindful of “unscrupulous organisations deliberately housing children in poor conditions to attract ongoing financial support from volunteers”. Along with the possibility of unknowingly contributing towards child exploitation, the site warns that taking on a short form volunteer project with no applicable skills ultimately may not benefit the community you are trying to help.
So is ethical volunteering actually possible? “Volunteers need to become more aware of how volunteering in ‘orphanages’ is keeping children away from their families so that the volunteer’s personal needs are met,” says Martin from NGN. “Unless they are qualified child care workers, volunteers should avoid orphanages altogether and instead they should look for placements which will match their skill set, and transfer their skills to local people. Most importantly, volunteers should come with a mindset that they need to learn from local people about their needs and culture, before they can ‘give back’. This is ethical volunteering.” – Victoria Kerridge
Top photo from the Next Generation Nepal Facebook page.