What Everyone Needs To Learn About Cambodia's Orphanage Tourism Industry

Cambodia is a truly magical destination and one that is increasingly popular with tourists who wish to explore the historical sights of Siem Reap, the bustling city of Phnom Penh or the islands off the south coast such as Koh Rong.

The outlook for 2020 issued by the National Bank of Cambodia said the number of foreign tourists could hit 7 million, increasing from the estimated 6.7 million in 2019. A percentage of visitors choose to travel to Cambodia in Southeast Asia to help give their time and money to the voluntourism or volunteer tourist industry. The majority of this volunteer commonly involves children living in care.

Volunteering at a children's home or at what is better known in Cambodia as an orphanage comes at a cost. Each year, thousands of people volunteer without really knowing who they are supporting, both with their time and their money. So why does this matter? Isn't helping children a good thing? Well, that depends on many factors but it may come as a surprise that research answers this with an overwhelming, no. No - working with children in orphanages here in Cambodia is not good. Interested in learning more? Let's take a look further into this situation.

5 Key Points You Need To Know

1. An Orphanage Operates As A Business

In many cases, orphanages operate as a business in Cambodia in order to generate a profit through the exploitation of children who commonly have one or more living parent. The orphanages, which base their business on a concept of institutionalising children, often prioritise the requirements of the business or organisation itself over the welfare of the children. There are many key factors to be aware of when it comes to orphanages or children's home's in the region.

  • Firstly, the majority are separated from their family.

  • Children are accommodated in a living space with a large number of other children.

  • You may notice that the centre is further isolated or that children live away from the wider community.

  • The institution does not commonly support a healthy relationship with the child's family and at times siblings may be separated or disconnected over time with one another.

  • Children are at risk of developing Reactive Attachment Disorders.

  • Children with learning difficulties or disabilities do not commonly have additional care or support.

  • Children may be required to interact with tourists and visitors without a choice.

  • Children commonly have no formal education are taught by volunteers who do not have appropriate training.

  • Children may be required to perform concerts or shows (traditional dance or music) for tourists for donations.

For more information, you can read the Children First Report produced by Comhlámh and the Volunteering and Orphanages Working Group (OWG).

2. It Is For-Profit

This industry generates an annual profit of over $2.6 million a year as many volunteers and students pay over $2000 to partake in a volunteer trip abroad to work with children living in poverty. Researching where your money goes and why you are required to pay such high fees to an organisation is very important for tourists to do on their own prior to signing up for volunteer work abroad.

3. Fake Or Sponsored Orphans

Many of the children you see in 'orphanages' and 'children's homes' in places like Cambodia - actually have a living parent or extended family. It is estimated over 80% of children still have a living parent.

Yes, it might be true that their family can not care for them - but in many cases, the parent did not surrender their own child to the orphanage. Business owners go to the local villages and offer families money (often very little money) for them to put the child into their care. They are promised protection and education.

However, many children live in devastating conditions within these homes, exposed to a higher risk of child exploitation. Orphanage tourism can keep children separated from their families and many children are then portrayed as orphans to gain sponsorship from foreigners - this monthly donation meant for school fee's and living expenses rarely goes directly to the child.

4. Children Posing As Tourist Attractions

Short-term volunteer work is commonly disruptive for children and a large percentage of kids can suffer from trauma and neglect by tourists who visit for a few hours in a day without any experience in the child protection or social work field of practice. In many destinations, it would not be appropriate or permitted to visit children in a child care facility, school or other without due cause, security clearances or background checks.

The idea of walking past a location where children live and simply wandering inside to 'check it out' or see their home is inappropriate and unsafe for the children. The dark side, often untold to tourists, is that these manufactured orphanages do not have the policies or regulations in place to protect children. You can learn more about the campaign to educate tourists on this topic here at THINK - child safe

5. Exploitation Of Vulnerable Children

The following information in point 5 has been taken from a report "Sexual Exploitation of Children in Cambodia" July 2018, presented to the Human Rights Council by APLE Cambodia and ECPAT International with the content of the report mostly derived from ECPAT research and APLE fieldwork in Cambodia. You can view the full report here

According to the Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism, increased tourist interest in volunteering during their stay has inspired some orphanages to encourage poor families to hand over their children for care, in order to offer more voluntourism opportunities to tourists. This exposes children to a high level of exploitation for an industry that can not provide a high enough level of security.

UNICEF states that the number of orphanages doubled between 2009 and 2014 in Cambodia, even though the number of orphans has decreased. In 2014, a government inspection found that 70 percent of 12,000 orphans living in state and private care institutions still had parents or other relatives.

Children living in care facilities are often exploited to try and raise money by soliciting donations from the Voluntourists. They are exposed to people they should not have direct contact with as it disrupts all aspects of their daily routine and places them at a higher risk when it comes to personal safety.

Cambodia’s Child Protection and Welfare Services remain weak, understaffed and lack funds. Such gaps in welfare services and in poverty levels can lead parents to resort to alternative measures such as unsafe migration, abandonment or placement of children in residential care.

Approximately three in four children living in residential care institutions have at least one parent who is known to be alive. Orphanages are big business in this region and many tourists are mislead to believe that the child was placed willingly into care or that the child has no family.

Final Thoughts

Most reputable organisations no longer accept volunteers who are not willing to stay for at least 3 or 6 or commonly 12 months and offer a position that matches with someone's skill set. Please do not volunteer if you are not trained or qualified as the rights of the child should be everyone's priority. You can support and advocate for organisations and groups who do work within the community to support families with income, education and counselling.

Organisations that do not require background checks most definitely do not have the best interests of children in mind and should be questioned about their child protection policy. If they do not provide one - avoid supporting their business.

It is true that there is no shortage of Cambodian workers available in the region and these volunteer positions can take much-needed jobs away from Cambodian people. Those who arrive in the country to build a school or create a garden may unknowingly take paid work from someone who needs the income. These forms of one-off projects usually do more harm than good even with the best of intentions.

Supporting families is better than support orphans or sponsoring orphaned children. If you are interested in a volunteer project that cares for the wider community and aims to make a real difference. You can check out the following link for further advice. THINK Child Safe Please help share this information and comment your thoughts below.

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