The UN Children’s Fund in Australia has warned volunteers and tourists to avoid visiting Cambodian orphanages following critical reports from the press in recent weeks.
In a post on its website, UNICEF Australia said “these types of tours exploit children and their families for the financial gain of the organisers and can lead to further exploitation”.
According to Kate Moore, spokesperson at UNICEF Australia, tourists are growing increasingly wary of orphanage visits in Cambodia, thanks in part to critical media reports on the practice, such as a piece on “the orphan business” that aired last week on Australia’s national broadcaster the ABC.
“There’s certainly a growing awareness about the fact that these orphanages are more harmful than they seem,” Moore said.
While the number of orphans in Cambodia has declined over the past 10 years, orphanages have more than doubled, and almost three-quarters of “orphans” still have at least one parent, according to UNICEF.
Experts from UNICEF say children are better off staying with their families, than to risk squalor and sexual abuse in orphanages, while volunteers, though well-meaning, often have little training or screening.
Despite the negative press, it’s unclear whether the number of orphanages is still growing.
“It’s very difficult to say, because we just don’t have the statistics,” said James Sutherland, communications coordinator at Friends International, which is behind a “Children Are Not Tourist Attractions” campaign.
One New Zealand-based volunteer travel company said it was “very aware” of the issue but stood by its “popular” program of sending volunteers to Cambodian orphanages.
Ben Brown, risk and responsibility adviser at International Volunteers HQ, said the company has “very strict requirements that our partners in each country need to meet in relation to the childcare organisations that they place our volunteers in”.
Still, many large aid providers are steering well clear of any orphanages in the Kingdom.
“The Australian Government’s aid program does not fund orphanages in Cambodia, and no Australian Government-funded volunteers are placed in orphanages,” said Simon Fellows, deputy head of the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh.