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Children are not tourist attractions

Children aren't a sightseeing attraction and orphanages aren't zoos. It shouldn't need to be said. Yet "Orphan Tourism" has become so common in Cambodia there's now a campaign to stop it.

What is Orphanage Tourism and why is it bad?

You wouldn't go to your local hospital and start taking photos of the patients. You wouldn't tour your poorer neighbour's streets taking selfies with slum kids and criminals for instagram bragging rights. And you wouldn't walk into your local school, disrupt the class to play with and cuddle the children or hand out gifts.

Or would you?

Why is it that Western tourists - and they are predominately Western - think it's okay to do overseas the things that would be against all sorts of social and cultural norms back home?

As someone who works in the rights and development sector, I have worked with 'at risk' children including those in an orphanage. This wasn't a "voluntourism" program. My purpose for being there was to manage the children's cases alongside the social worker. We'd trawl slums trying to find the parents that abandoned their children, interviewing neighbours to see if we could track down relatives. For those who had been taken by authorities after maltreatment, we assessed whether the 'home' environment was safe for their return. We liaised with the police and courts to process their ward status and any adoptions.

Because this is the reality behind kids in the care of the state. They are children with difficult, often tragic, stories. They live in a public world of courts, governments, charity organisations and a lot of sadness. Through circumstances beyond their control and comprehension, their privacy and dignity has already been violated in a way most of us were lucky never to have experienced. We don't have any right to add to that for our own holiday amusement.

In Cambodia the problem is mulitplied. There clearly aren't enough orphans to go around the 'for-profits' so vulnerable kids are separated from their parents under dubious pretences. They are often kept in poor conditions in order to garner donations from passing, compassionate tourists shocked by the basic conditions. Unsupervised access opens the door to further abuse.

To gain a sense of how prevalent this is in Cambodia, there has been a staggering 75% increase in the number of orphanages since 2005, despite a decrease in the number of parentless, abandoned and at risk kids.

Obviously not all residential care places are nasty, dickenseque, money grabbing places but "responsible tourism" is about having an awareness that those places are out there and choosing carefully where you visit, volunteer or donate.

There has been a staggering 70% increase in the number of orphanages since 2005, despite a decrease in the number of parentless, abandoned and at-risk kids (source)

Orphanage Tourism, open visits to orphanages, is especially disturbing. The public (most well meaning but some not) are allowed unfettered access to vulnerable children as if they are in a petting zoo. Strangers who don't speak their language are allowed into their space, including their bedrooms. Children who may have been traumatised by adults are expected to be friendly and play with them.

Unfortunately those children have no where else to go, the orphanage is their home. Many are forced to be there against their will. Even if the child is legitimately happy to meet you, this isn't a meaningful, nurturing interaction with them. Children in residential care already suffer many complex physiological issues. Being treated as an 'experience' by a paying stranger and a 'cash cow' by their guardian is additionally extremely damaging.

How did we even get here?

As travellers we yearn to get a sense of a new place or culture through its spaces and people: its wild landscapes, the urban jungles, small villages, busy markets, museums and galleries. Many of us want a less sanitised experience and to "meet the locals". We aim to step across the line from "tourist" to "traveller" and have a meaningful interaction.

Sometimes those lines are blurred or overstepped. We stop being visitors and start being voyeurs. Guided slum tours; donor visits to schools; hospitals and refugee camps; play dates with orphans are experiences pushed on travellers that ethically "cross the line".

Even with forewarning and good intentions you can be accidently sucked into the vortex of these murky places. I was in Siem Reap only a week and found myself at the doors of two orphanages when I had no intention of visiting any.

The first was a positive and expected experience. I was aware that there was a residential care facility associated with the site but I wasn't going there. It was not part of the 'attraction' and wasn't accessible to the public. They also had strict protocols around the limited number of people who worked at that children's home.

The second was an unplanned stop along the tourist trail at what we thought was just another roadside handicraft store. From the outside it looked like any other, except that the two craftspersons we saw were older teenagers rather than adults. Inside it soon became apparent that this wasn't just a store. Between the gallery and another workshop was a dormitory and a sort of classroom full of young children with a male Westerner observing them. We didn't stay. Although we weren't hit-up for donations and didn't have any interaction with the children, it was shocking how accessible it was. Back in Siem Reap, a web search revealed tourism advertisements emphasising that the orphanage was as much a component of a visit to the gallery as the artwork. That raises a lot of red flags and reminds us how important it is to be very clear about where you are going - even if your guide claims to be onboard with 'no-orphanage tourism'.

Put children first and wherever you go, treat them as you would your own - Think Childsafe

Why are there so many orphanages in Cambodia?

Cambodia is a developing nation with a significant humanitarian footprint. Outside of Siem Reap, expats and aid workers probably outnumber tourists. It's certainly not hard to run into foreigners and locals who are attempting to make a difference to a country that has experienced the worst of humanity, especially when it comes to the treatment of children.

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge sought to 'reset' Cambodia. After taking power in a coup, they began to dismantle governance and institutions that are pillars of normal society. Their reign of terror resulted in the deaths of millions of academics, artists, teachers and ordinary workers. Children were separated, the vast majority permanently, from their parents and set to work as farm labourers. In 5 years, the Khmer Rouge had systematically made an entire generation orphans. Those adults who survived the genocide, and those children who soon grew to be adults, faced an extraordinarily difficult future that will continue to cause financial, health, social and cultural problems for generations.

A necessary reality of the genocide was the need for orphanages, a place where children without known relatives could live safely. The alternative is the street. There is an ongoing need for residential care facilities for children. However this need, and the willingness of people wanting to help a child in need, has been exaggerated and exploited by the unscrupulous looking to make a buck.

Fighting the Good Fight

Friends International is one Cambodian based organisation that works to make children safer. Through education and advocacy its Childsafe Movement raises awareness of the ways in which children may be exploited and how you can make a difference.

Their work isn't only aimed at volunteers and tourists, it also works with organisations on the ground to strengthen their own child protection policies and processes. This award-winning initiative has trained thousands in child protection and their Childsafe campaigns have reached millions, benefiting thousands of children in a very real way.

Like many other tourist experiences we thought were benign, inciteful or even helpful, Orphan Tourism is gaining opposition from travellers. Lessening the market for it will help to stamp it out.

What you can do

  • Know, Don't Go. It's that simple. You can still make a difference, but do it at arms length. Find out more about the situation you're concerned about through research from trusted sources like UNICEF and Save the Children and look for legitimate ways to support the cause that don't involve perpetuating a harmful tourism trend.

  • Be aware that local guides may not have the same objections as you to these orphanages. Sadly, orphanages have been part of the tourism landscape for many years and many foreigners ask to visit them. If a tourism operator doesn't live up to the 'ethics' they tout, discuss this with them.

  • If you do accidentally end up in place that isn't where you expected to be, leave. There's no reason to stay. Honestly, I've walked into the 'wrong place' in so many ways many times while travelling. The problem isn't making the mistake, it's in not correcting it.

Find Out More


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