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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ‘Orphanage tourism’ still an issue: UNICEF

‘Orphanage tourism’ still an issue: UNICEF

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.



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klektik's picture

The dreadful truth is that quite a few Organisations in Australia are collecting finds from gullible people and they use these these funds to pay themselves huge salaries. its not uncommon here in Australia for CEO of supposedly charitable organisation to have salary packages that exceed $250,00 PA. So very little of the funds raised even go to these "orphanages". These NGOs give guarantees that they will place orphanage visits on tourists itineraries, and quite often thats all they do. They also charge young people in Australia to be voluntourists . Sometimes in excess of $2000 to engage in volunteering . Very little of this money raised ends up in Cambodia. I think the emphasis should change , and some of these NGOs operating out of Australia need to be scrutinised thoroughly. I think it is reprehensible that some Cambodians are setting up fake orphanages, but worse are people in first world countries profiting from peoples good intentions. Its these organisations that are stimulating the demand.

Peter Bull's picture

While visiting Phnom Penh I was disappointed to read this article. The environment for raising money for children's centres / orphanages in Cambodia has been difficult for several years and may get worse due to this and other press comments.

For the past 8 years I have been an (unpaid) trustee for a UK charity set up to help a group of Cambodian children towards a new, better future. We work with a Cambodian partner organisation which makes sure the children are in a safe, healthy environment where they are given good support and educational opportunities.

We strongly believe that Cambodian people need help through many avenues, and orphanages / children centres have been one of the ways to help them. Like any group of institutions, a number of them have been misused as money making opportunities or places where children are abused. Those places should be closed immediately.

Centres that are safe, caring and truly helping to educate the children should be allowed to finish programmes with their existing children. It would be a giant step backwards to send children well on their way to a new future back to the difficulties they faced previously. Many would be exposed to new dangers and be unable to complete their education.

Our charity Golden Futures, which is recognised and regulated by the UK Charity Commission, was set up by volunteers after they returned from working to help people in Cambodia. It is one example (and there must be others) of the benefits which can come through volunteer programmes.

Golden Futures spends 100% of the funds raised directly on our work in Cambodia, with no paid staff. We work with a responsible Cambodian partner, which is responding to the Cambodian Government's initiative to change the role of orphanages, and we will continue to support them as they move towards providing support to families within their local communities - a process they have already begun.

It would be sad if sweeping generalisations led to this life-changing work coming to an end.

Peter Bull