PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Voluntourism is a growing situation in which people from primarily Western countries travel abroad for the purpose of volunteering. When such volunteers are not entirely aware of the situation they are entering, their positive intentions can be manipulated to do more harm than good.
A perfect example of this trend lies in Cambodia, a country that in the last two decades has grown in relative peace and prosperity. Cambodia’s rise has led to an increasingly thriving tourist economy, and a voluntourist economy alongside it, especially in orphanage tourism. But despite a positive development trend in Cambodia, the number of orphanages there has increased dramatically. These new orphanages have become a means to attract free labor and donations from volunteers to enrich the owners instead of helping the children.
According to UNICEF, three out of four Cambodian “orphans” have at least one living parent. These children are taken from their parents, and intentionally kept in unsanitary and unsafe conditions to draw the sympathy of tourists, who believe they are donating to a real orphanage. Volunteers are encouraged by children on the street to visit their “orphanage”, where the children are forced to put on a show or dance for the visitors. The children are told by owners to act happy and cordial to this revolving door of sympathetic strangers.
Although the individual circumstances are often unclear, it is commonly the case that parents are unaware their children are used to manipulate tourists into giving their time and money to a fake cause. They often send their children to these facilities under the promise of providing them with a “Western” education. Or in some circumstances, parents believe their children will be provided better care at an orphanage than they themselves could afford.
The parents are manipulated, the volunteers are tricked, and the children are forced to collaborate a lie. And it gets worse. The owners of facilities rarely screen volunteers before they are allowed to spend time alone with the children. Volunteers can often take children away from the facility for the day, unsupervised. Sometimes, as revealed in a micro-documentary by People & Power, kids are lined up for people to pick which ones they’d like to take with them for the day. It takes little imagination to envision how such a scenario could go horribly wrong for the children.
Companies are exploiting both the well-being of children and the good intentions of volunteers for profit. Travelers to Cambodia are often completely unaware that they are fueling an industry of exploitation. In fact, they overwhelmingly perceive themselves as accomplishing just the opposite. The ‘demand’ for volunteer work in orphanages, fueled by a burgeoning tourism market, have enabled people to separate children from their families into fake orphanages, children who would otherwise grow up in their own homes.
Volunteers often don’t realize that when they donate to a facility, they sometimes encourage the conditions they sought to end. Donating money to a child begging on the street will often force them to stay there. It is the obligation of volunteers to research the mission they are about to undertake, especially if that mission involves travelling to another society and culture. If they don’t, they could do far more harm than good.
As a final note, spread this article and the sources below so more people become aware of orphanage tourism in Cambodia. If you are traveling, find out which facilities to look for at thinkchildsafe.org.