Orphanages Will Not Stop Orphanage Tourism: Who Will Put Research into Action?

Responding to: How Can We End Orphan Tourism?

By: Sarah Chhin

June 3, 2019

The foreign volunteers at the orphanage were incensed. Although the raid had followed a thorough and conclusive investigation into abuse at the orphanage, the volunteers were insistent that there was no abuse there, and tried to block the police and social workers from doing their jobs. The following day they invaded the NGO caring for the rescued children, demanding that the children be released back to the closed orphanage, or into their care.

The volunteers were from various countries and were newlyweds, gap year students, and men in their 40s displaying a keen interest in certain children. None had been volunteering for longer than three weeks, and all had plane tickets to depart within the month. At the raid, they had encouraged the children to run away from their foster families and parents, and actively tried to find the families to remove the children. Then, as their flight itineraries suggested, they all disappeared.

The orphanage had not had a child protection policy, nor had it required volunteers to provide a police background check from their own countries, and none of the volunteers had any qualifications in child care, youth work, or working with vulnerable children. Yet, here they were, demanding that local authorities ignore due process, and insisting that their demands were the best and safest course of action.

Research conducted over decades now informs alternative care strategies around the globe, and deinstitutionalization and family-based care are the approaches of the day. It is well documented that the vast majority of children living in orphanages are not orphans at all, and the negative effects of orphanage tourism are also widely recognized, with all of this research and information easily accessible online. A search for orphanage tourism or volunteering on Google brings up many reports, blogs, and videos on why volunteering in an orphanage is a bad idea. 

At the same time, there is also a general awareness and expectation in most of the countries volunteers come from that police background checks are non-negotiable for anyone working with children. Schools, agencies, and places of worship are expected to have child protection policies. There would be an outcry from parents if these checks were not in place, and people and places who do not comply with these expectations are regarded suspiciously.

With so much information freely available online about orphanage tourism, and the expectations we have about the protection of children in our own countries, there is no excuse. It is time for volunteers and sending agencies to take responsibility for their actions and stop perpetuating the double standard that exists with regards to child protection in countries receiving volunteers. If it is unacceptable for any random, unchecked person to care for our own children, then it should also be unacceptable for that to happen to other people’s children, no matter which country they live in.

Individuals looking for volunteer opportunities need to read up on the issues, recognize red flags, and not take up placements if they are asked to do things they would not be allowed to do in their own countries, or if they are not required to provide basic documentation. 

Groups offering volunteer or short-term team opportunities should be holding partner organizations accountable to best practice, making sure they are properly registered, have relevant policies in place to safeguard the rights of both their own beneficiaries and the volunteers, and are not involved in illicit or dubious activities. They should also be matching the skills and experience of volunteers with the needs of the partners, while helping partners identify areas where they need support. 

Charities around the world work to strengthen impoverished communities and families, and need support in areas such as public relations, administration, capacity building in practical skills, and document editing–all tasks that will help them provide more effective services to children, families, and communities without putting anyone at risk, and don’t necessarily need high levels of qualifications. For sure, these won’t give anyone great photos of poor children to post on Instagram, but that should never be the motivation for volunteering anyway.

Six months after the orphanage raid, one of the volunteers returned to apologize for her behavior after having done some research and realizing the implications of what had happened. When orphanages are able to make money from tourists and volunteers, the practice of offering volunteer opportunities is not going to stop, so the onus is on sending agencies and volunteers to change the narrative, based on verifiable research that is freely and openly available.

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Orphanages Will Not Stop Orphanage Tourism: Who Will Put Research into Action?