Responsible Travel Article
Orphanage Tourism in Asia
Image courtesy of www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting
by Fiona McAdam
You’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, maybe months, and finally you’re here. Your holiday has arrived.
From the moment you step off the plane, adventures and new experiences are waiting for you around every corner, and you’re open to all of them. For a lot of people, that’s what a holiday in a developing country is for – experiencing things that they’ve never tried, seen, eaten or done before.
Perhaps you meet some local people and feel a connection with them. You learn more about their community or country from talking with them than you ever could from a guide book or the articles you’ve read online. Someone might offer to take you to their home for a meal or show you a side of this incredible place that tourists never see. You can’t believe how much this experience is affecting you and you feel compelled to do something to help make life just a little bit better for these beautiful people who have been so warm and welcoming to you. Maybe you hear about an orphanage close by that welcomes visitors, and your heart breaks at the thought of children growing up in institutional care without family. It’s at this point that I urge you to stop.
The best of intentions
I spent a year volunteering at two children’s residential centres in Thailand. I began that journey as well-meaning and innocent as most people are when first dipping a toe into these muddy waters. I was going to make myself useful. For the sake of the orphans.
I learned a lot about the reality of orphanages during that year in Thailand, and it was a steep learning curve. Before I committed to volunteering at the centres, nobody suggested that I should stop and ask a few incredibly obvious questions. Questions like: Do the children have living family members? (The answer is almost always yes.) And why are the children living far away from their family? What psychosocial support do they receive at the centre? What are the credentials of the person or group who has set it up? What training do the people who run the centre have to qualify them to do such complex work? What child protection policies do they have in place? Why haven’t they insisted that I supply them with a criminal record check or working with children check? Should this place even be open?
A vast number of the almost uncountable, and in many instances unregulated, children’s homes in developing countries rely on volunteers, like me, to keep their operations running. Volunteers usually have to pay weekly or monthly fees, which is fair enough if you’re living on site because costs need to be covered. But that begs the question, why on earth are unscreened, probably hopelessly unskilled volunteers living on the same premises as vulnerable children?
I’m not the first – and definitely won’t be the last – person to discover at some point while volunteering at an orphanage that the answers to these sorts of questions are usually not encouraging.
Getting some wisdom
My learning continued over the following two years while I was living in Cambodia and got to know more social workers than I had ever met in my life, and they all had plenty to say about these centres. Again, not encouraging.
It’s no secret that Cambodia has more than its fair share of problems, and it can be bewildering and overwhelming to live among them and to try to reconcile yourself to it all.
Friends International (www.friends-international.org) is one of a growing number of organisations working to raise awareness of, and minimise the harm caused by, orphanage tourism in Cambodia, Thailand and in other places. Yes, your good intentions are doing harm. Orphanage visits by travellers impact the children’s safety, privacy and stability. They are often forced to put on cute little performances for the visitors, who applaud the adorable rendition of the local culture’s song and dance – much like at the elephant and monkey shows that they may also have taken in during their trip.
In 2011 Friends International and Childsafe (http://thinkchildsafe.org) teamed up on a powerful campaign to educate travellers about orphanage tourism. The words ‘Children are not tourist attractions’ are accompanied by an image of children in a glass box being photographed by tourists, as if an exhibit in a gallery or museum. It’s clever, and uncomfortable to look at.
The truth is that children’s residential centres are not zoos. The vulnerable children living in these institutions need at least as much protection from unknown adults as children who live in happy, loving family homes. Imagine an orphanage where you live. Would it seem right to you for adults who have not been screened, who have not had to show any identification, to be able to walk in off the street and take a look around?
A few years ago I was horrified to read an article in the travel lift-out of an Australian newspaper recommending that travellers visit a particular orphanage in whichever country it was waxing lyrical about. I wrote to the column’s author to let them know what an irresponsible piece I thought it had been, backing it up with links to the positions on orphanages of child rights’ organisations like UNICEF. Disappointingly, I received no reply.
Responsible ways to help
So if and when you find yourself in that place that has captured your heart and mind, and you hear about an orphanage that you could visit, remember to ask yourself a few questions. Like: if they’ll let you in without any checks, who else are they letting in? What value would your visit add for the children? What does it teach them? Would this be acceptable at home?
If you are truly driven to do something to help, spend some time searching for a reputable organisation that delivers services for vulnerable children, and donate as much money as you can. If you are thinking about volunteering at an orphanage, I would encourage you to reconsider. The revolving door of short-term volunteers at these centres does nothing to help the children’s sense of stability. More reputable homes insist on a minimum of six months for volunteers, but during this time bonds are developed between them and the children, who are once more exposed to feelings of abandonment once the volunteer leaves. If you decide that volunteering at an orphanage is the right thing to do, and you have satisfied yourself that the place has strong integrity, just ask yourself one final question. Do you have the appropriate social work or childcare skills and experience to make a valuable contribution to the lives of the children living in that very delicately balanced environment?
I encourage you to visit the website of the ‘Children are not tourist attractions’ campaign – www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting – and read what these experts in child protection have to say about it.
Fiona’s love of travel began when she took off from Brisbane at the age of 21 for a year in Canada, followed by more than five years in London where she discovered her inner foodie. Since then she has lived in Sydney, Thailand, Cambodia and Melbourne, where she gets her get-up-and-go from writing about the things she loves – mostly food and travel – and working on her first book. You can find her musings on her food and travel experiences at http://eatingandgoingplaces.com and contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.