At the end of last year, after several months of enquiry, Australia passed a historic ruling connecting a popular travel activity – visiting and volunteering at orphanages overseas – to modern slavery. It is the classic example of “responsible tourism” gone awry: once thought to be a philanthropic endeavor to enhance a travel itinerary, making a vacation seem less self-indulgent and more altruistic, orphanage trips have now been roundly condemned as doing harm to the very children and communities they purport to help.
As the popularity of volunteer travel, or its hybrid sister “voluntourism” has grown, so too have the opportunities offered in destinations, designed to meet the unique needs of travelers. Activities that don’t need many specialist skills, that can be done in a group, that can fit into already tight travel schedules, that are not too much hard work and that can produce that feel-good glow of having made a difference. Orphanage experiences easily tick all those boxes. About a decade ago, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I personally witnessed busloads of tourists rocking up to orphanages for a few unstructured hours of “playing” with the children and handing out gifts. The children themselves, seemingly so delighted with the visitors, easily doled out smiles, hugs and carefully-practiced performances, imploring their new friends to “come back soon.”
While on the surface this seems to be a heartwarming picture, there are several huge cracks in the story. Firstly, the number of orphanages in popular tourist destinations – in Cambodia, Nepal, Guatemala, Bali, and Kenya, to name but a few – were mushrooming, just at the point when the global number of orphans were declining. The overwhelming majority of the children populating these institutions had parents – globally this figure is thought to be between 80 and 90%. Many of the children had been deliberately separated from their families by traffickers who tricked parents into believing their child was better off in an orphanage than at home. The smiles, physical affection and clingy behaviour that many tourists see as validation that their visit is worthwhile and making a difference, are in fact worrying signs of psychological disorders caused by neglect.
Far from orphanages being desperate responses to a surge of destitute children with nowhere else to go, in all too many cases they are a calculated response to a growing demand for feel-good experiences in the tourism market.
Far from orphanages being desperate responses to a surge of destitute children with nowhere else to go, in all too many cases they are a calculated response to a growing demand for feel-good experiences in the tourism market. The sad fact is that tourists and volunteers visiting and supporting orphanages will always make the situation worse. Short term interactions with strangers – especially those uneducated in social work and who believe their main job is to offer love – can exacerbate attachment disorders in children who have already experienced abandonment and trauma. Instead of orphanage volunteering being the “easy/fun” option for unskilled short-term tourists, the reality is that working with extremely vulnerable and traumatised children needs to be left to the professionals, who can provide ongoing, stable and culturally-appropriate support. Added to this is the fact that the whole corrupt business model is founded on the demand from tourists for experiences and avenues to “help.” Quite simply, tourism dollars are fueling the separation of children from their families and perpetuating a cycle of abuse – the exact opposite of what most of those well-meaning visitors intended.
Orphanages of course exist on a spectrum – from those with owners perhaps naively thinking that the children are better off in an institution and doing everything they can to provide for their education and material needs, to those exposing the children in their care to physical and sexual violence. The link to slavery become apparent when it is revealed that some institutions keep children deliberately under-nourished to solicit more donations, send them on the street to beg, threaten them to lie about their family situation and even their own names, hire them out as unpaid domestic servants, or force them to perform for or interact with tourists without breaking their smiles.
Evidence of a similar pattern of exploitation has been collected from all over the world – enough for the Australian government to feel the need to legislate against it. Senator Linda Reynolds, lawyer Kate van Doore, and an dynamic coalition called Rethink Orphanages network helped to launch a government inquiry into orphanage trafficking and its links to tourism, which passed into law in Australia at the end of last year. Specifically the bill requires travel companies, NGOs and educational institutions to report on how they are mitigating orphanage trafficking and child exploitation in their supply chains. On the back of these developments, the Dutch Parliament is also considering legislation and the issue has been debated in the Commonwealth.
So what does all this mean for the tourism industry, specifically the volunteer and philanthropic travel sectors? At the moment, unless you have an office based in Australia, it doesn’t mean very much on a practical level. But on an ethical and moral level, the shift is huge. There is now irrefutable legal evidence to prove that certain forms of travel experiences, ones currently being offered by a whole range of providers in Europe, North America, and around the world, are causing harm, and may even be supporting child slavery. Even in Australia, the ban only applies to organizations of over a certain size. There is still a huge way to go, and lots of immediate steps that actors in the travel industry can take, such as:
- Stop supporting, donating to, or sending volunteers to orphanages or residential care institutions for children. There are no circumstances under which this is a responsible practice. If you are looking to transition away from this, seek support from child protection organisations to ensure the shift is made responsibly.
- Actively campaign for your government to bring in legislation around modern slavery in the travel industry. Using the Australian parliamentary submission as a guide, join with others in the sector to call for orphanage trafficking to be recognised in law in your country. Groups such as Rethink Orphanages may be already working towards this in your region.
- Raise awareness about this issue amongst your clients. Help transform the sector by providing information on responsible ways of contributing and volunteering overseas – you could even recommend or send them copies of the Learning Service book. (Bulk copies are available at a massive discount! Please get in contact through our website.)
So while the developments in Australia are a tremendous step forward, whether or not orphanage tourism and other forms of child exploitation in the travel sector truly die or not is up to us. There is an opportunity for all of us in the tourism industry to say that now we know better, we will do better, and end this practice for good. Because it is only when the support and money for this type of ”attraction” dries up that the orphanage business will close down its shutters for good.