Orphanage tourism: Who are foreign volunteers actually helping?

Cambodian orphans play at an NGO in Takeo province, some 45 kilometers south of Phnom Penh. (AAP) Source: AFP

Cambodia is home to hundreds of orphanages and people travel from around the world to volunteer at them. But experts say rather than doing good, foreign volunteers are driving the forced removal of children from their families.

Sylvie Gjerde travelled to Cambodia because she wanted to help children. She knew the country's history and had heard about the extreme poverty people were living in, and thought she could do some good. She was recommended an orphanage in Siem Reap, so she arranged to volunteer there for one month in 2011.

But once she was there, things were not as she had imagined.

The orphanage was co-owned by a New Zealand man based in Auckland and a Cambodian man who lived nearby. Ms Gjerde, now 28, noticed the man drove an Escalade and his wife wore expensive rings. She was told the couple was building a second storey on their nearby home.

Meanwhile the children at the orphanage were living in very basic conditions with only two Cambodian women, who lived there full-time, to care for them. "One toddler had special needs and often defecated all over the ground," Ms Gjerde said.

She refused to pay the $A100 fee the orphanage requested of its volunteers because she wanted to make sure the money went directly to the children, so she bought food for the children and sanitary products for the girls. "The orphanage was a bit annoyed that I didn't pay," she said. But they let her stay.

As the weeks wore on, Ms Gjerde became increasingly suspicious about where the money going into the orphanage – from foreign donors and the high volumes of volunteers – actually went.


She and another volunteer began to investigate and approached the owner. "He told me that 'In Cambodia, every mountain has a tiger'," she said, "which I took to mean that every community has a leader and it made sense that they get more luxuries and wealth."

Unsatisfied, the pair continued to search for answers. But the orphanage staff were not happy and eventually they were asked to leave.

Ms Gjerde thought of the children and the never-ending tide of smiling foreigners who came to take photographs with them, and felt sick. 

"I just thought, 'This is f---ed'," she said. "I felt gross that I was going to leave and they would just stay and keep going to the toilet in a bucket."

When she got back to New Zealand she arranged to meet with the co-owner and complained to him about the conditions and alleged corruption. "He was defensive and refused to accept any criticisms," she said.

She now questions the ethics of "voluntourism" and says she would definitely not do it again.

The business of orphans

The voluntourism industry is reportedly worth $A2.6 billion worldwide.

James Sutherland, of Cambodia-based NGO Friends International, said there is about 300 registered orphanages in Cambodia and hundreds more that are not registered. Many offer volunteering opportunities for short stints or extended stays as well as day visits, for a fee.

"I felt gross that I was going to leave and they would just stay and keep going to the toilet in a bucket."

He said Ms Gjerde's experience was not unique. 

"We see many people talking about how they have come to see orphanages in Cambodia because it's on the itinerary and how uncomfortable they feel about it after going there and seeing the reaction from the children."

But he said people like her were part of the problem.

"They don’t set out to hurt children; they’re setting out to help children," he said of foreign volunteers. "But they’re really unaware of the complexity of what is an orphanage business in countries like Cambodia."

Mr Sutherland said the reason there was a large number of orphanages in Cambodia was not because there were a lot of orphans needing homes but because orphanages had become profitable businesses. 

Shockingly, an estimated 75 per cent of children inside these orphanages were not orphans at all and had one or more living parents. Mr Sutherland said parents were being pressured into putting their children into care to ensure the orphanages, which raked in money from well-intentioned volunteers and donors, were populated. Orphanages were being billed as better, safer options for children in poverty.

"The problem is when people are seeing this as the only option, they feel pushed into doing it," he said.

Friends International has three campaigns underway to shed light on "orphanage tourism" and to discourage volunteers coming from places like Australia to spend time in orphanages. 

"Your money might not actually be getting to the children it’s meant to help. Your donation of rice may be re-sold back to the shop it’s come from, and that cycle goes on. There are many, many of these orphanages that are operating as businesses pure and simple, they're a scam." 

Mr Sutherland said the vast majority of orphanages in Cambodia were owned and operated by foreigners and said the concept of orphanages was an introduced one.

"There's a misconception about Cambodia sometimes that that people can't care about their kids because they give them up to orphanages. Totally untrue," he said. "Cambodia is such a family-oriented society, an extended-family-oriented society.

"It's the orphanages that are actually alien to Cambodia. But over the years, because it's business and it brings money in, they've proliferated."

Who are you helping?

At the heart of the industry lies an uncomfortable question: What motivates people to volunteer? 

Volunteers often say they are driven by a desire to help but Mr Sutherland said if people really wanted to help they would consider more sustainable options.

"If you have transferable skills in childcare, for example, why not use them to train Cambodian staff? Rather than spending your time in the orphanage, working there. You’re from a different culture, you’ve got lots of work to do before you can actually start to fit in there and also you’re not doing anything sustainable because when you go, that knowledge goes with you," he said.

"Foreign volunteers don’t set out to hurt children, but they’re really unaware of the complexity of what is an orphanage business in countries like Cambodia."

Steve Cooke of World Vision Cambodia said volunteers need to think about how they might be contributing to the problem.

"There are many people who come to Cambodia with really fantastic intentions and a lot of them make a really great contribution, but they really need to make sure and do their research to ensure that their contribution is going to be sustainable and isn’t actually contributing to an industry that is actually profiting from the neglect of children," he said.

On its website, The Lonely Planet lists "dos" and "don'ts" for orphanage volunteering, stating:

  • "Do work with the local staff rather than directly with the children. Teach the local staff how to speak English and you have created a sustainable impact. You may not have photos of you hugging cute little children, but you will have done some good."
  • "Don't volunteer at any orphanage without thoroughly researching it. Is it regulated? Do they require background checks on volunteers?"

On the ground

The number of orphanages in Cambodia has ballooned in the past 20 years and the government has done little to monitor them. 

Prior to 2006 there were no regulations around owning and operating orphanages in Cambodia, meaning anybody could come to the country and set up an operation with children in their care. 

In 2006, the government introduced the The Policy on Alternative Care for Children, which stated that orphanages should be a last resort and children should be in a family environment where possible. In 2008, the government introduced The Minimum Standards on Alternative Care for Children and in 2011, the Prakas (proclamation) on Procedures to Implement the Policy on Alternative Care for Children came into effect. Both set minimum standards for care facilities in Cambodia. Before that, there were none.

Mr Cooke said the government had made progress but it was slow.

"The sooner we can close these centres because there's no longer a need because children are being taken care of by families, the better," he said.

A spokesman for UNICEF said that a 2014 Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) report showed seven care facilities had been closed down since the minimum standards were introduced.

"Children from those institutions have been reunified with their families and communities, and some have been referred to other residential care institutions and state orphanages waiting for proper family tracing, assessment and reunification," he said.

"If you have transferable skills in childcare, for example, why not use them to train Cambodian staff rather than spending your time in the orphanage."

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said the goal was for children to be with their families.

"We don't want to separate a kid from their own community," he said. "The family must play a more important role. We don’t want to keep them in the camp."

He said foreigners were no longer able to open new orphanages in Cambodia, but SBS could not verify this information.

Mr Sutherland of Friends International said his understanding was that the opening of new orphanages had been "restricted," rather than banned altogether.

"In some orphanages they’ll try to encourage the kids to look malnourished to encourage donations. There are many, many tricks involved in the whole process."

A spokesman for UNICEF told SBS: "Presently, opening orphanages or residential care institutions requires authorisations from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs for International NGO and Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation. And for some cases especially with local NGOs, they get authorisations from provincial authorities or local authorities. There is no particular Ministry in charge in managing or overseeing the residential care institutions."

"Because of this, UNICEF supports MoSVY to develop a Sub-decree on Management of Residential Care Institutions for Children in order to establish legality and responsibility of MoSVY to provide oversight, including for opening and closure of residential care institutions, with proper case management, family assessment and reunification of children from residential care centres if they are found to be under performing or violating children rights."

Living conditions

Conditions inside the hundreds of orphanages in Cambodia vary greatly.

According to Mr Sutherland, some lack basic amenities. "The children [in them] are more at risk than they would be in the family situation". While others that receive more funding are and often in nice new buildings. "Fundamentally they are still institutions and the children are still institutionalised," he said.

Mr Sutherland said orphanages regularly used children to raise money by handing out flyers or putting on shows. "In some they’ll try to encourage the kids to look malnourished to encourage donations. There are many, many tricks involved in the whole process."

On the outskirts of Phnom Penh along a long and dusty road sits Little Hearts orphanage. The orphanage is home to about 33 children and a further 120 children come in from the community each day for schooling. Little Hearts was opened six years ago by Belgian man Tony Geeraerts and his brother Jimmy. Inside the grounds there is a classroom, a kitchen, an office, and a number of rooms filled with tiny bunk beds for the children.

Mr Geeraerts said it wasn’t always easy to ascertain whether children were "real" orphans and said he had turned a number of children away.

"Sometimes people are just knocking on the door and they think they can have a better life here at Little Hearts and it's very difficult. If we’re going to accept everyone that’s poor, that’s impossible."

He shrugged off suggestions that the orphanage industry in Cambodia was plagued with corruption and neglect. "We don’t have time to get involved in other organisations … We just try to do our own thing.  And we really try to help the kids and help the community and we have very good communication with the government."

At the time of my visit, there was only one foreign volunteer, also from Belgium, living on the premises. Mr Geeraerts said volunteers like her were extremely important to the running of his orphanage.

"They're like mums and daddies for the kids. They take them to the shower, they teach activities, they teach English. They're very, very important and that’s why we need a good selection of the volunteers because it’s very important that the kids are surrounded by good, trustworthy people."

My visit to the orphanage was cut short when two government officials arrived to meet with Mr Geeraerts. The Belgian volunteer offered to show me out. "See," she said, as I walked through the large gate, "we do good work here." 


Mr Sutherland said the pathway to unwinding such a vast industry was complex.

"A lot of it has happened under the radar and it’s been allowed to grow, particularly over the past 10 years," he said. "But now people are realising – there's something wrong here."

And beyond the crackdowns and closures, there were vulnerable children with uncertain futures.

"It’s a complex process because you’re talking about reintegrating children with their families," he said.

"In some cases they may have only left their families for a few years, in others it’s longer term. So the reintegration process has to be carefully managed.

He said the children also needed to recover from the impact of being exposed to so many volunteers.

"Children do form attachments with people that are broken," he said. "They get to know someone really well for two weeks, for six months, for a year, and then that person leaves.

"Of course that's damaging to them."

For more information on orphanage tourism, visit:

Sylvia Varnham O’Regan was in Cambodia on a journalism fellowship with the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

Source SBS

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