Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The uncomfortable truth: Why you should skip the orphanage tour in Cambodia - Many orphanages in Cambodia are profit-driven businesses that need tourists and 'orphans' to keep their operations going

For the thousands of Australian tourists who visit Cambodia each year, there is one stop on the tourist trail that continues to be popular: visiting an orphanage. Typically, a visit involves meeting and playing with the kids, walking through their living quarters and taking photographs. It can also include a short performance or dance routine by the children. Often there are opportunities to volunteer – for anything between a few hours and a few months. The visit usually culminates with a request for donations.

Cambodia's tourist orphanages

Cambodian orphanages are increasingly used to service a tourist industry that has sprung up around Westerners visiting them.

For Australian couple Linda and Geoff Foard, it was a chance to interact with local children and do their bit to help.

"I hadn't been to Phnom Penh before and I hadn't seen poverty on this scale," says Linda. "We were a bit overwhelmed by it all."

The dark underbelly of a Cambodian orphanage
In hindsight, Linda recalls a number of red flags that only later gave them pause for thought. "We were given carte blanche to wander around the orphanage and talk to the kids ... When we went out to buy some sacks of rice, some of the kids wanted to come with us. We were allowed to take half a dozen kids out of the orphanage. They had only met us an hour beforehand. We could have been anybody. They didn't know our names or anything – it was crazy."
 The Foard's experience is typical of many Australians who visit Cambodia. Orphanages are easily accessible to tourists, with visits often advertised by guesthouses or tour companies. Some orphanages even bring their children to popular tourist areas, handing out flyers and urging tourists to visit their orphanage.
An entire industry has grown out of thousands of these tourist visits. In the last decade, the number of known orphanages in Cambodia has doubled, with dozens more still being uncovered. This is despite the number of orphans in the country actually decreasing. The uncomfortable truth is, more than 75 per cent of children in Cambodia's orphanages have at least one living parent, while many more have other family members who could look after them with the right support.
Why are so many parents giving up their children? Mostly it's because orphanages are promoted to poor families as a better option for their children. For families struggling to survive, this can be convincing – a chance to give their children the education and opportunities they missed out on.
In truth, it's a case of supply and demand. Many orphanages in Cambodia are profit-driven businesses that need tourists and 'orphans' to keep their operations going. By visiting and supporting these orphanages, well-meaning Australians have inadvertently fuelled an industry that is separating children from their families and putting kids at risk of abuse and exploitation.
Australians have a clear role to play in putting an end to this practice. We need to reduce the demand of tourists wanting to visit and support these orphanages, in order to stem the supply of vulnerable children being removed from their families and communities.
Many orphanages in Cambodia are profit-driven businesses that need tourists and 'orphans' to keep their operations going. 
The Cambodian government must also continue to crack down on unregistered orphanages. Positive steps have been taken but close to half of the country's known orphanages have failed to register and there are no rules in place around who can have direct contact with children.
A ban on tourists visiting orphanages must be considered, if best-practice child protection standards are to be enforced – or at the very least, a requirement for formalised background checks. Without any regulation, children are at high risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation.
For the Foard's, their experience of visiting a Cambodian orphanage not only left them questioning the safety and wellbeing of the children, but left them out of pocket. Wanting to ensure an education for some of the children they met, they sponsored three children upfront at a cost of just over $1000. While the money was acknowledged as received, they never heard from the orphanage again, despite multiple enquiries spanning a year.
"It leaves a really sour taste in your mouth," says Linda. "In that 12 months, their website disappeared ... I got a report from somebody in Cambodia to say it was being updated, but it's never appeared. This was four years ago."
The business of orphanage tourism must end once and for all. For Australians wanting to help vulnerable children in developing countries like Cambodia, there are far better ways to provide support that will prevent more children being pushed into residential care.
If the significant amount of funding enjoyed by orphanages was more appropriately funnelled into community development programs, the impetus for poor families to place their children into institutional care would be vastly reduced. This is why organisations like ChildFund work with local communities to alleviate poverty and keep children safe – ensuring access to education, healthcare and proper nutrition for even the most vulnerable children and supporting parents with livelihood programs to boost household incomes.
Improving conditions for children within their own families and communities is always preferable to placing kids in institutions. Ultimately it's about providing the necessary support to ensure children can be safe, educated and heard, while enjoying their right to grow up within their own family.
Mark Kavenagh is child protection advisor at ChildFund Australia, a member of the ReThink Orphanages network. 

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