Every year, well-meaning Australians flock to developing countries to volunteer in orphanages – but this type of “voluntourism” could soon be banned.
Although most travellers have good intentions, four out of five of the children they hope to help are not genuine orphans, according to Australian advocacy group ReThink Orphanages. Some have been trafficked from their home villages – with or without the consent of their families – and are being exploited by those running the orphanages, simply to make money.
As a result of increasing awareness of these concerns, global volunteering company Projects Abroad announced this week they would no longer organise orphanage trips and would instead move towards supporting children in community- or family-based care. The move follows a similar announcement in September by World Challenge, one of Australia’s biggest school volunteer travel organisations.
Concerns about Australians volunteering in orphanages in countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal surfaced at a recent federal parliamentary inquiry into modern slavery, which examined Australia’s involvement in human trafficking, exploitation and forced labour around the world. The inquiry committee heard that children being removed from their families and placed in orphanages for profit – a form of human trafficking – is a phenomenon in many developing countries.
The committee, which will report next month, will make recommendations on what should be included in a Modern Slavery Act, inspired by the UK’s introduction of similar legislation in 2015. However, it has already said it is considering recommending separate, immediate legislation banning Australians from supporting or volunteering in orphanages.
One committee member, Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds, believes orphanage tourism – where tourists pay to visit, volunteer in or make donations to institutions in developing countries – endangers children. She wants it made a criminal offence to have an orphanage on a travel itinerary, and says travel companies, schools and businesses organising tours to orphanages could be unknowingly contributing to modern slavery.
“Your money is potentially paying people who have trafficked children and people who are enslaving children. I think Australians would be horrified if they realised that.”
The definition of modern slavery includes child labour and trafficking, according to the committee chairman, Chris Crewther, MP. “Obviously there are some orphanages out there who really look after the children, so we’re not trying to target them, but the issue is a lot of tourists go to orphanages and not all are operating in a good manner,” he says.
“Some have trafficked children and are taking advantage of tourists who are benefiting the traffickers.”
Chris Crewther, Linda Reynolds, Andrea Nave and past volunteers Hanna Konsti
and Philip Engelberts spoke to Hatch about their experiences:
Many such travellers would be shocked to learn that their voluntary work and donations support the founding and maintaining of dubious institutions where, according to UNICEF, children are routinely instructed to befriend donors, perform for them and solicit money.
Although there is limited data on Australians’ involvement in overseas orphanages, and the flow of Australian money to these institutions, a 2016 ReThink Orphanages report found:
– Approximately 75 per cent of Australian charities work with overseas children, and almost 10 percent are involved with, or support, orphanages.
– 57.5 per cent of Australian universities advertise orphanage placements for students.
– About 14 per cent of Australian secondary schools are involved in supporting overseas orphanages.
Child trafficking and poverty in developing countries lead to children being placed in institutions even though they have living parents or other family members. Traffickers typically target poor, vulnerable families or one-parent homes, and convince parents to give their child away with the promise of a better life and an education. Poverty can lead families to view children as either a financial burden or a potential source of income, and the UN cites it as the reason 47 per cent of children in institutions are there unnecessarily.
A 2011 report by Cambodia’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation noted that volunteering by foreigners contributes significantly to the founding and maintaining of orphanages. “They [volunteers] do this, for the most part, with the best intentions and in the hope of having a new challenging experience,” it says. Australia’s federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, has promised to reduce support by the large number of schools and universities engaging in orphanage volunteering trips.
The parliamentary inquiry received submissions from anti-orphanage and pro-family-based care organisations Cambodia Children’s Trust (CCT) and Forget Me Not, both of which used to run orphanages in developing countries. Tara Winkler, who founded CCT after realising children living at her Cambodian orphanage were so-called “paper orphans”, told the inquiry that institutionalisation was dangerous and harmful for a young child’s development.
Winkler’s father, Peter, who ran CCT alongside her for several years, says that once his daughter became fluent in Khmer, Cambodia’s national language, she realised “nearly all of them [the children] had one parent or even two who were living. The ones who didn’t have living parents had grandparents, aunties and uncles or family where they had come from.”
Peter Winkler says that, as a short-term measure for children in real need, orphanages may be necessary, but long-term care can be damaging. “Even good ones are using the children as a commodity to raise funds. Some have sexual abuse, slavery and just terrible circumstances,” he says. CCT now works alongside the Cambodian government and UNICEF Cambodia to promote a model of family-based care, helping other orphanages evolve into family support networks and programs.
“I remember saying to Tara some years ago that the concept of how good an orphanage is in these countries is so entrenched that it will be very, very hard to actually move things. But she argued against me and said ‘We will turn this around,’ and it does appear to be happening,” Winkler recalls.
CCT made a joint submission to the inquiry with Forget Me Not. The latter’s CEO, Andrea Nave, says they now “work in child protection and prevention programs, helping families stay together, just like we would in Australia. If they’re unsafe, we look for ways to keep the child safe and at home, with monitoring and with care, as opposed to collecting children and putting them into an institution.”
Hanna Konsti volunteered twice in an orphanage in Mozambique in 2007, first for three weeks, then for a month. She supports the committee’s proposed ban, “as long as they’re not stopping people from supporting the right organisations”.
“If they know of orphanages that are profiting, I would 100 per cent support a ban on that. You shouldn’t be profiting from this,” she says.
Philip Engelberts volunteered at an orphanage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on and off in the 2000s. While agreeing that strict guidelines must ensure children are protected, he believes that “to ban it [orphanage volunteering] altogether is a bit extreme”. He says he would like to believe orphanages are no longer necessary, but “there is still a need for them in Second or Third World countries”. – Podcast and words by Samantha Besgrove @sambesgrove editing by Kathy Marks