For the socially responsible traveller it seems the booming industry of volunteer tourism offers something for everyone. From building project homes in Cambodia to teaching English in Chile. But in Nepal where orphanage tourism has become big business there is growing concern that well intentioned foreigners are fuelling the demand for fake orphans. Tonight Evan Williams goes undercover with investigators in Kathmandu as they try to buff that city's trade in children.
REPORTER: Evan Williams
More than 500,000 tourists visit Nepal every year drawn by its spectacular mountains, ancient temples and culture. This is Thamel - it is the tourist centre of Kathmandu. Foreigners come here to book everything from mountain climbing to white water rafting, elephant riding and trekking. They can book a placement as a volunteer in any one of the hundreds of orphanages here in Kathmandu Valley.
With over 500 orphanages in Kathmandu alone, people volunteer because they are moved to do something when they see the poverty here. It's become an accepted part of many tourists visits. Few realise it's illegal to work as a volunteer on a tourist visa. We have heard travel agents are happy to arrange a placement regardless. We use a secret camera to find out if that's true.
REPORTER: I’d like to work as a volunteer. Is that possible?
TRAVEL AGENT: It’s possible. There are many places you can visit here.
We meet a tourist tout who says he's a broker for several orphanages.
REPORTER: How long can we do volunteering for?
TRAVEL AGENT: Minimum one week.
And for the right sum he can get us placements looking after children, no questions asked.
TRAVEL AGENT: One week is $100.
REPORTER: Have other people volunteered through you as well? How many, many people.
TRAVEL AGENT: Three or four people.
One agent we meet even says he had his own orphanage with nine children desperately needing the support of foreign donors.
AGENT: If you donate like… US$500 I can provide you with one receipt and you can receive this amount as a discount on your tax.
By the end of that trip through the Thamel brokering scene for orphanages we were very clearly being asked for money to sponsor children. Every year foreigners donate millions of pounds in the hope of feeding and educating Nepal's needy orphans. We have heard the orphan industry is now so lucrative children are becoming a valuable commodity. Kishor Kunwar works as a teacher inside orphanage called Happy Home - on its website it claims most of the children in the home are orphans or abandoned street children. But Kishor claims this was not the case.
KISHOR KUNWAR: I wrote on the board “Parents…okay, anyone have parents?” “Yes sir, I have mother.” “Yes, I have father and mother…” When I went to other class and asked “Anyone have parents?” everyone raised their hands, just one girl didn’t. Out of the 45 kids, 40 have parents, 5 don’t have the parents.
REPORTER: So there is only five real orphans out of 45 that you asked?
KISHOR KUNWAR: Yeah.
With his suspicions aroused by the website, Kishor started looking for the parents.
KISHOR KUNWAR: OK. About Mingmar, she has a mother and a father also. Her real name is Kavita, but in Happy Home she is Mingmar. It’s a fake name.
REPORTER: So she has a mother and father in they changed the name? Do they change the names of all the children?
KISHOR KUNWAR: Most of the kids, not all but most.
REPORTER: Father died while she was six. Her mother couldn't work because she's paralysed.
KISHOR KUNWAR: I am just laughing. I met her mum and she is a security guard at a bank in Kathmandu. She is a security guard, how can she be paralysed? This is all fake.
REPORTER: So she has a mother who is working. Yeah. OK.
Kishor was so concerned about the treatment of the children he lodged a complaint against Happy Home with the Central Child Welfare Board. The board investigated the complaint but found that there was insufficient evidence for their purposes. Since then he says he's received threats even from a police officer.
KISHOR KUNWAR: As a policeman he’d call my phone and threaten me.
He now lives in fear.
KISHOR KUNWAR: He used to say “If you don’t stop this case I will arrest you and I will beat you. You don’t know what the police are like. If you get punishment from police, then you will understand. You put cases against Happy Home, I will arrest you.”
After challenging the powerful orphanage owners Kishor found himself in a lonely fight for the children's wellbeing.
KISHOR KUNWAR: No-one was going to hear their problems, no-one was there to love them, no one was there to take care of the kids. I am also missing the kids so much, not the proprietor. So sorry.
Kishor's testimony is very compelling. He is convinced that donors have being deceived.
LESLIE STONE: Kishor, you are eye witness because you are a former employee of Happy Home.
Kishor has taken his case to a local child protection organisation that has flown in a former US law enforcers, Leslie Stone, to investigate Happy Home and many orphanages like it.
KISHOR KUNWAR: I am getting threatened.
LESLIE STONE: Threats. If someone calls you on the phone and makes a threat you are listening on the phone. You are the eye-witness.
Kishor presents details of the fake orphans inside Happy Home. From what she's discovered, Leslie believes that many of the orphanages that have popped up in Nepal may constitute a new form of child trafficking.
LESLIE STONE: You cannot take children and misrepresent them as an orphan in order to get foreigners to donate, in order to get volunteers to come and donate. That is a form of child trafficking.
REPORTER: Child trafficking.
LESLIE STONE: It is a form of selling a child.
REPORTER: Using them as a business.
LESLIE STONE: Using children as a commodity.
Leslie wants to investigate where the children are coming from. Kishor tells her that Bishwa Acharya, the Happy Home owner, is persuading poor lower cast families to give up their children with a promise of a good education.
REPORTER: Did you give your permission for your children to go? What did you say to Bishwa at that point?
He put us in touch with a mother called Sumita who tells us how Bishwa convinced her to give up her children, Pemba and Choisong.
SUMITA (Translation): I said no. They said “We have a better home and they will get a better education.”
REPORTER: And what did you say to Bishwa at that point? Did you give your permission for those children to go?
SUMITA (Translation): I could not say anything… “Don’t take my kids.” A lot of kids are disappearing for the kidney trade.
REPORTER: So, just so I am clear. Did he take the children without your permission? You didn't give your permission for him to take the children?
SUMITA (Translation): If you don’t send the kids, they won’t get a proper education
REPORTER: Why didn't you stop him?
SUMITA (Translation): I could not say anything, I was struck dumb.
The orphanage owners seem keen to become the children's legal guardians, obtaining their birth certificates and changing their names.
SUMITA (Translation): He said “I need your child’s birth certificate. It’s urgent. All the others have brought theirs - it’s just yours I’m waiting for.”
Having no birth certificates leaves parents unable to reclaim their children.
REPORTER: On the Happy Home website, Choisong is listed as an orphan with no mother and no father.
SUMITA (Translation): Then who am I? Who is her father? I’ll curse him for saying that. I am ready to fight him in court to prove it.
Sumita that tell us that Bishwa Acharya refused to give her children back to her. After a brutal beating the children, Choisong and Pemba finally managed to escape.
SUMITA (Translation): There were beatings from the very beginning, she was beaten with a pipe and her finger was broken. They said “If you tell your parents you will be hung up and killed. We are not related, nothing will happen to us if you get killed.”
What I find most upsetting, most disturbing about the situation is that this woman entrusted the care of her children into the hands of this man running this orphanage. And instead they were regularly beaten and, in fact, they did not get the education that she thought they were going to get.
Kishor has called Leslie and told her that another young boy has just escaped from Happy Home.
LESLIE STONE: Did you like the school?
We have come to a poor neighbourhood in Kathmandu to track down seven year old Majbula, who tells us about his treatment at the hands of Bishwa's wife, Pooja.
LESLIE STONE: What happened when you went into Pooja’s room, what happened?
MAJBULA: Just like.
LESLIE STONE: Pooja hit you like this?
LESLIE STONE: In the mouth?
LESLIE STONE: Did you ever see Bishwa or Pooja hitting another boy?
MAJBULA: Yeah, all... boys and girls. All.
LESLIE STONE: All the other boys and girls. Every single day she would hit you?
MAJBULA: One day she hit us with a stick, one day with a belt, one day she hits us with shoes. We were all put in a line and one by one we went in and were beaten.
Majbula, just very naturally retold the story about what was going on inside, he was beaten with sticks, belts and shoes simply for talking. And if one child talked they were all beaten. Really, really disturbing the things that are going on in that home and to think that there are children in there right now suffering the same sort of abuse it is really upsetting.
LESLIE STONE: He is the third child that I talked to, but whenever I talk to a child I am hearing the same thing. I want you and you to go by this place and look at it. Like, right now.
Back at HQ, Leslie is continuing to build her case against Happy Home. Kishor is worried that the owner has been tipped off that there is an investigation and will hide the children.
LESLIE STONE: What I want you to do is observe the place, see if there is any activity. See if there is any indication that there are children inside. Take up a position at the end of the street somewhere as best you can very casually, fitting into the environment in a way...
Leslie sends her investigators to set up surveillance outside Happy Home. We have to try to find the hostel where the children may have lived or are still living. Kishor is taking big risks coming down here. He has been told to stay away and is worried about being recognised by the owner.
KISHOR KUNWAR: He warned me “If you come to that area, I will do something bad to you.”
Kishor goes to see if the children are still there or if they have been moved.
PHIL: Kishor has an awful lot to lose. He is no well-known and sooner or later they are going to realise that he was the guy that did the bit. He is taking huge risks.
KISHOR KUNWAR: Drive, drive, drive.
REPORTER: Okay, so the owner of Happy Home just caught us there lurking around. They saw us and want to know what we are doing. We are now even more determined to investigate inside Happy Home. Posing as a foreign donor my director goes in with a secret camera. She is greeted by Bishwa Acharya himself.
BISHWA ACHARYA: This is a charity school for orphans and street children.
It takes just one phone call to arrange a visit.
BISHWA ACHARYA: We have around 30% street children and the rest of them are orphan children, abandoned children.
My director goes through the website with Bishwa and finds Sumita’s son, Pemba. She specifically asks him how Pemba and his sister Choisong, came to be at the orphanage.
BISHWA ACHARYA: I found two children on the street.
Bishwa is not telling the whole truth. He doesn't mention how he persuaded their mother to give them up. Nor that she had to fight to get them back. Bishwa also says he has hardly any foreign donors.
BISHWA ACHARYA: We are raising funds through online sponsorship. We have only two – one is from Switzerland and one from France. Two sponsors. Now we need to find enough for all the children, for all eighty.
Bishwa explains that he wants to buy some land and build a new orphanage from money he is trying to raise from foreign donors.
BISHWA ACHARYA: So now this is only a rented building, we would like to find a cheap area, if you are interested we can start something. $100,000 is the cost.
LESLIE STONE: So we have America, Slovakia, Spain... And there is one more, UK.
While Bishwa pleads poverty, Leslie is following the money.
REPORTER: So there's quite a number of foreign people who have been involved in sending money and spending their time at Happy Home.
After days of research, Leslie has had a breakthrough – several donors have emailed her with details of how much money they have been sending to Happy Home.
LESLIE STONE: This woman was a volunteer and she is the accountant. She has provided for me bank statements from the non-profit charity in Slovakia, that show over a two and a half year period there was 150,000 Euros sent to this place.
REPORTER: 150,000 Euros? And is that just one charity from one country?
LESLIE STONE: That's only one and I know there's at least two more plus individual donors.
Bishwa told us he was only receiving £120 per month for two children. Leslie has uncovered a very different story.
LESLIE STONE: I'm still looking for the very wealthy Chinese person and the German person.
Giving kids an education is why foreign donors give cash and why parents agree to send their children to orphanages but Leslie has found the children's education is suffering. She has been held back several years of very important education? At the age of 12 one girl was put into a class just above nursery.
LESLIE STONE: When she left Happy Home, she was in class two, and that is way below her age level.
REPORTER: So she never advanced?
LESLIE STONE: And she also said she never advanced and took exams. When I asked her why she didn't advance she said it was because if she advanced then the sponsor would stop paying money - this is what she was told - because then she could be represented as being younger than she really is.
Leslie is building her evidence to take to the police in the hope of a full criminal investigation. Bishwa Acharya told us that descriptions of children on the website are correct and verified with the local government of Nepal. He denies persuading families to give up children or changing children's names or birth certificates. He said that no parents have asked for their children back, and that what he told our director about having only two sponsors was exactly correct. Bishwa said children are well educated in Happy Home, and claims that a false impression has been given about the treatment of the children in his orphanage by business rivals.
Leslie has heard that many children are being brought to Kathmandu's orphanages from impoverished villages across Nepal. We join her as she travels deep into the Chinese border to find out how children are sourced from this area.
LESLIE STONE: It is presented to them as good education, nice clothes, good food and they are going to be very well cared for.
During her investigations, the name of this village, Sindulpalchuk, has been mentioned repeatedly. Leslie has been told that many parents here have been convinced to send their children to orphanages.
MAN (Translation): We were not given the exact details just that it was a children’s home in Kathmandu.
The families tell Leslie they gave their children to a woman, who promised them a better education in Kathmandu.
LESLIE STONE: How long ago did Laxmi go missing?
MAN: Ten years.
LESLIE STONE: How old was she when she went missing?
MAN: One and a half years.
LESLIE STONE: And you have not seen her since?
They say they tried to retrieve their children many times, but were unable to do so. They now fear they've lost contact forever.
SITA (Translation): I don’t know what condition they are in or what will happen to them. It is painful not seeing them for ten years. I hope to see them again some day.
Amongst several cousins and her brother and sister, Sita is the only one to remain in the village. Navraj tells us one woman sent all the children to an orphanage in Kathmandu called Bal Mandir and that the local teacher was involved in identifying children for her.
NAVRAJ: He was the principal.
LESLIE STONE: He was the principal of a school in your village?
LESLIE STONE: When your brothers and sister were taken - and he was one of the agents?
NAVRAJ: Yes, he helped them.
We track him down and he agrees to talk to us. This is the school principal who was involved in trafficking children out of his area over the past ten years or so and he is prepared to talk to us about the trafficking process. But he wants to do it at his home, because it is a confidential matter.
PRINCIPAL (Translation): A woman came to my house and offered to take the children to the Bal Mandir Children’s Organisation.
He claims Navraj's father asked for his help to send his children out of the village, thinking they would have a better future.
PRINCIPAL (Translation): I feel guilty, they told us the children would be back here after seven years but we were deceived. I was only thinking of the good of the children.
LESLIE STONE: Do you know about other children who have gone to Bal Mandir?
PRINCIPAL (Translation): I have heard that children were taken from other villages. We only found out later that the people who took them were bad.
The woman he has been talking about, we have been told by the NGOs in the areas here, has been responsible for hundreds of kids possibly going missing in this area and he has been very closely associated with her. Maybe it was for the best intentions. Children from this village were initially sent to an orphanage in Kathmandu called Bal Mandir. We want to go and see it for ourselves. Posing as foreign volunteers, we go inside with a secret camera. It is difficult to imagine the distress children from the village felt at being ripped away from their families and kept behind these walls.
REPORTER: Overall, the impression I am getting is that it has just been let go and if it’s true that this has been done in any way to make it look worse so they can get donors, then it’s very sad indeed.
A Bal Mandir manager agrees to talk to us, as long as we don't reveal his identity. He tells us that government district officials are signing false papers to make many of the children look like orphans when they are not.
MANAGER (Translation): The district registers the child as an orphan then sends the child with fake paperwork to Bal Mandir and we never question it.
REPORTER: So you are describing there a very powerful network of political people who force district officers to falsify documents to get children into Kathmandu?
MANAGER (Translation): Yes, they do.
He says some politicians are profiting from the orphanage business. While there are orphanages which genuinely do help needy kids in Nepal, Leslie has identified a growing problem, which she believes needs urgent attention.
LESLIE STONE: There are 500 children’s organisations just in the Kathmandu valley - that doesn't even account for the ones outside the valley or throughout Nepal and some of the villages, some of the smaller organisations that are not even registered.
REPORTER: Should a donor who is maybe sending money just stop doing that until some other safeguards are in place?
LESLIE STONE: I would like to see international donors be responsible for their donations. When the children are not getting fed properly or not being clothed or educated as was promised, it is really the only way that an organisation can be held accountable.
Just as we are about to leave, Kishor receives an urgent phone call from Majbula's mother. The 7-year-old boy who has just escaped from Happy Home is still not safe.
MOTHER (Translation): They surrounded me at 2 o’clock
She tells Leslie and Kishor that four men surrounded her on the street, telling her they had been sent by Happy Home's owner.
MOTHER (Translation): They wanted me to know if I was Majbula”s mother. I was scared they would stab me if I said I was Majbula’s mother.
She says they demanded to know where Majbula was - saying he should be returned to the orphanage. Like many children, Majbula will continue to live in danger. He is still a valuable commodity to orphanage owners, who use the poorest of Nepal's children to make money out of well-meaning foreigners.
Bishwa Acharya told us he is unaware of any threats made on his behalf. We asked the Bal Mandir orphanage about the allegations. They told us they have strict measures in place to ensure they now only care for genuine orphans and are working to reunite parents with children wrongly placed in the home in the past. They deny that documents are falsified - and say they rely on those supplied by the government. They say they are open about their finances - but face challenges to provide care for the children.
ANJALI RAO: Deeply distressing situation. Evans Williams reporting there. Well, Evan tells us the head of the Happy Home orphanage has since been arrested on child trafficking charges. Authorities are trying to reunite most of the children with their parents. Well, Evan has written a blog for our website focusing on one of the children who escaped from the orphanage. There are also links to the NGOs trying to help stop the trade at sbs.com.au/dateline.
A Quicksilver Media Production
25th March 2014