The exploitative practice of orphanage tourism has finally received the political attention it deserves, with the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (the Committee), set to recommend a ban on Australians visiting orphanages overseas as part of their current Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia.
Almost a year ago, BucketOrange Magazine published on the dark side of voluntourism. In particular, child traffickers who essentially manufacture orphans by visiting vulnerable communities and convincing parents to give up their children on the promise of an education and better living standards. Traffickers sell these children to ‘orphanages’ and change their identities by falsifying documents meaning that families are no longer able to locate their children. Many charities and NGOs refer to such children as ‘paper orphans’ as they are not genuine orphans.
The demand for volunteering experiences from Western countries in recent years has fuelled a boom in orphanage tourism globally.
According to Unicef, Australia is among the top financial supporters of such orphanages in many South-East Asian countries.
Orphanage tourism, or voluntourism, is big business. According to ReThink Orphanages, in the last
10 years, the volunteer tourism industry has blown up and is now worth a whopping $173 billion globally. Over 8 million children around the world, who have at least one living relative, are living in orphanages.
Orphanage tourism has been described as a new form of modern slavery. Leigh Matthews, founder of ReThink Orphanages says that one of the main drivers behind the explosive growth of orphanages is an increased demand from Westerners who seek volunteering opportunities rather than an increase in the number of orphans.
Of course, tourists and volunteers are unaware that they are actually doing more harm than good by visiting these orphanages which is why public education, awareness and strong leadership by government is urgently required to help put an end to this insidious problem.
Fight against orphanage tourism gains traction
In recent months, the campaign to end orphanage tourism has gained much-needed momentum. Yesterday, Projects Abroad, one of the biggest voluntourism companies in the world, announced that it is severing ties with all overseas orphanages.
In September this year, World Challenge, an organisation dedicated to sending high school students to volunteer overseas pledged that it would end its association with orphanages.
The reality is that Australia has played a prominent role in fuelling the rapid increase in paper orphans for many years with 14% of all Australian schools and more than 50% of Australian universities sending student volunteers and fund-raising efforts to support overseas orphanages.
It disgusts me that well-meaning students seeking to help vulnerable children overseas might be unwittingly signed up for scam volunteer programs and orphanage tourism that risks further child exploitation.”
In an effort to address the issue, Simon Birmingham has asked the Education Department to work with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on a range of policies to be discussed at the next COAG Education Council in December this year.
Introduction of a Modern Slavery Act in Australia
Orphanage tourism has garnered media attention recently after several submissions to the Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia addressed the problem and a number of prominent figures have called for urgent action.
West Australian senator Linda Reynolds is pushing for orphanage tourism to become an internationally recognised form of modern slavery.
Tara Winkler, co-founder and Managing Director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, gave evidence about an orphanage director lining his pockets with donations from well-meaning visitors and overseas donations, as well as physically and sexually abusing the children in his care. While this director profited, children suffered from such gross neglect that they were forced to catch mice to feed themselves.
A parliamentary submission by Kate van Doore, Secretary of Forget Me Not and a law and human trafficking expert at Griffith University, describes children who are deliberately kept malnourished in an effort to facilitate donations from foreigners:
The orphanage was receiving approximately USD$6000 per child per year from foreign donors with no efforts made to reunify the children with their biological families,” says Kate van Doore.
Often orphanages are utilised by paedophiles posing as volunteers and visitors to access vulnerable children,” says Kate van Doore.
The global orphanage crisis is not fuelled by an increase in poverty or the number of orphaned children – both of which are in decline in Cambodia and in many of the other developing countries where sham orphanages are rife – but by overseas donations. Such donations from international organisations, universities and schools support traffickers and the proliferation of orphanage tourism.
What is the government likely to do about it?
It seems the Government has finally got wind of the issue, largely thanks to the efforts of Senator Linda Reynolds who has been advocating for the rights of paper orphans since last year.
There is now strong support among Committee members to ban Australians from visiting orphanages overseas as an immediate priority, ahead of a proposed Modern Slavery Act, which could take another 12 months to implement.
The committee is penning a letter to the Attorney-General, the Hon. George Brandis QC, and the Minister for Justice, the Hon. Michael Keenan, recommending an immediate ban on Australia’s involvement in orphanage tourism. Exactly what constitutes ‘involvement’ is yet to be established. It could refer to funding orphanages, to visiting them, or both. Exactly how the proposed ban will operate in practice is also unclear.
It is possible that the Committee is now considering the implementation of a more transitional model, such as that advocated by Kate van Doore. Along with other experts, she has cautioned against immediately cutting off support to overseas orphanages from Australian schools and universities, instead urging them to ask the right questions, such as whether the orphanage has a reintegration program, before they support an orphanage.
It is also important that such support and resources are redirected to aid agencies and non-government organisations actively working towards locating the biological families of trafficked children and reintegrating them with their communities. An increased focus on supporting vulnerable communities and keeping children within those communities is also critical.
What more should be done?
Legally acknowledging the connection between modern slavery, child trafficking and orphanage tourism as well as raising community awareness about the importance of selecting legitimate volunteer programs are vital first steps.
Part of the solution requires Australians to be informed travellers and to find legitimate ways to volunteer overseas, namely by supporting community-based programs and working with organisations that locate and reunite paper orphans with their families. These include Australian charities such as the Cambodian Children’s Trust, Forget Me Not, and the Born to Belong Foundation.
An important protective measure should be to require Australian volunteers to obtain a Working With Vulnerable People card before departure.
On a global scale, due to of our particular responsibility for contributing to the problem, Australia should also be pursuing a vigorous strategy to bring pressure on relevant foreign governments that have permitted sham orphanages to operate. By withholding foreign aid, we can take immediate steps to ensure that this destructive practice is stamped out.
There is also a real need for more targeted legislation that acknowledges the severity of the harm inflicted on children by this exploitative form of modern slavery. An amendment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that specifically deals with orphanage tourism is one possible approach.
Where we find ourselves
Orphanage tourism is not yet formally acknowledged as a form of human trafficking but thanks to consistent lobbying by a few key experts, we are well on our way to leading the charge for change in this arena.
It is not often that Australia finds itself a world leader in something that has the potential to make a profoundly positive change by taking strong action to end the abuse of vulnerable children and prevent thousands of others from reaching the clutches of child traffickers.
Through legislation, awareness and public education, we have a real opportunity here to set the standard on the international stage and to spearhead a movement that contributes to ending modern slavery in our lifetime.
Let’s hope the Committee provides further, in-depth consideration of this issue in their final report and recommendations.
More on BucketOrange Magazine
- Think Child Safe
- Better Care Network
- Australian Council For International Development
- Australian Volunteers International – provides opportunities for skilled Australians to contribute to the Australian Government’s aid program.
- United Nations Volunteers – (UNV Program)
- ReThink Orphanages – a group of non-governmental organisations that campaign to end the exploitative trade of children. They advise anyone considering volunteering overseas to research carefully before deciding to support assistance programs and orphanages.
- Forget Me Not – an international NGO originally established to fund best-practice orphanages. It has since changed its focus to finding and returning paper orphans to their families. Forget Me Not also assists children to reintegrate with their community.
- Cambodia Childen’s Trust – focused on reuniting paper orphans with their families and communities.
- Next Generation Nepal – reunites orphanage-trafficked children with their families.
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