The number of orphanages has almost doubled over the last five years, but many are mere businesses set up to ride the tourism boom, leaving children vulnerable to exploitation.
On International Children’s Day last Friday, Friends International, a social enterprise that works to improve the lives of marginalised children and youths, reiterated its call on tourists to rethink visiting or volunteering at orphanages, saying this was ultimately detrimental to children in Cambodia.
“Children are not tourist attractions,” said James Sutherland, international communications coordinator with the NGO. “Please stop and think about that, and help us to end this practice by sharing our campaign message.”
The campaign to end orphanage tourism, established by Friends International and the ChildSafe Network, is concerned that some orphanages are thinly-disguised businesses that are exploiting children.
In recent years, orphanage tourism, has become a thriving industry in Cambodia, as the popularity of visiting orphanages continues to rise.
Such visits include day tours, dance routines and performances by the children, accompanied with a request for a token donation to assist with the cost of running the orphanage.
“More tourists are coming to Cambodia and orphanage visits have become part of the Cambodian travel experience,” said Sutherland, who has been with Friends International for the past three years. This surge in numbers has created a market for fraudulent orphanages and a demand for more orphans.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that the number of orphanages has jumped from 153 to 269 over the past five years. Surprisingly, most orphanage operators do not tell their visitors that of the 12,000 children residing in these orphanages accross Cambodia, 72 per cent of them still have at least one living parent.
“Not every orphanage is trying to earn the tourist dollar, but there are many that are making use of this opportunity to make a fast buck and the children end up being the victims,” Sutherland said.
“These children need to be protected, not exploited.”
Since its launch in October last year, the campaign, strongly backed by international child rights groups and the Cambodian government, has been an active force in educating residents and travellers about the need to stop promoting orphanage tourism.
“People need to know the causes that they are supporting and the effects of their actions,” said Heidi Bain, corporate liaison and social awareness manager at Friends International. “What we are trying to do here is to help people understand that their actions may be bringing more harm than good.”
To date, at least 3,500 restaurant owners, hotels and guesthouses operators, motodops and tuk-tuk drivers, and other individuals who have direct contact with tourists have been roped in to help.
These ChildSafe Network members are trained to protect children from potentially abusive situations. Since its launch, the campaign’s posters, flyers and advertisements have been placed in tourist hotspots throughout the Kingdom, and awareness has been raised overseas through partners such as travel agents and airlines.
The campaign also has a robust social-media presence, especially on Twitter and Facebook.
“It takes a long time for an initiative like this to be sustainable,” Sutherland added. “But we have received a lot of support over the past few months and it has been encouraging.”
Currently, Friends International is working on a long-term solution to support vulnerable children and their families. It is eight times more expensive to house a child in an orphanage than it is to house them with their families at home due to the general costs of operating the institution, Friends says.
As part of the campaign, it has formed alliances with several organisations to promote vocational training and community-based initiatives, where income goes to the family and the provision of social support.
Some of the projects aimed to generate income for the family include the Friends ‘n’ Stuff shop, where visitors can purchase products made by beneficiaries, and Friends the Restaurant, which runs training programs for young people.
“Rather than visiting and volunteering at the orphanages directly for a short amount of time, it would make more sense to support family or community-based options which would help keep children with their family,” Bain said.
“Children need to be with their family and the orphanage is often the last resort,” Bain added.
“Even then, orphanages are homes for the children and people should not be going to children’s home as and when they like,” Bain said.
For more information on the risks of orphanage tourism and tips on ensuring children’s safety visit www.thinkchildsafe.org.
To contact the reporter on this story: Calvin Yang at [email protected]m