Cambodia Launches Anti-Voluntourism Campaign

“Anti-Voluntourism campaign?”, “Taking Aim at Voluntourism?” If you are still offering projects/tours that include orphanages you need to read this because your clients are. If you have a guaranteed responsible way to work in orphanages then please share it in the comments so we can all learn, if you aren’t 100% sure and have a nagging feeling then PLEASE STOP – you’re killing our industry (and hurting kids).

Read the full story here – credit to Phnom Penh Post.

Campaigners are hoping a new social-media campaign launched yesterday will shock tourists into rethinking what are ultimately harmful engagements with orphanages in Cambodia.

The brainchild of Friends International and Childsafe, the anti -“voluntourism”campaign, supported by Unicef, features the tagline “children are not tourist destinations”.

“There has been a 65 percent increase in orphanages in Cambodia since 1995,” said Friends International communications director James Sutherland. “This is the 21st Century; the situation should be getting better, not worse. Tourists are perpetuating that system.”

The campaign uses the image of two children trapped in a glass exhibit box, peering out at Western tourists who are aiming digital cameras at them, an attempt to highlight the number of children who are forced to perform, advertise, beg and work to bring in funding for their orphanage directors.

“Orphanages are not zoos, and tourists should not be allowed to move through their home” the Friends International promotional material states.

“We know this is going to be contentious, and we invite debate,” Sutherland said.

About 97 percent of children in orphanages in Cambodia are not orphans, according to Friends, which said it was eight times more expensive to house a child in an orphanage than it is to house them with their families at home.

“As almost all residential care centres are funded by individuals from overseas, many centres turn to tourism to attract more donors, fuelling a system that exposes children to risk,” Unicef representative Richard Bridle said.

“Orphanages fundraise by offering tours to foreigners, in which children are required to perform dancing or to solicit donations. There is no legal requirement for orphanages to account for funds raised in this way.”

Friends’ executive director, Sebastien Marot, said the campaign is being launched on social media to combat the online recruit of volunteers and to get the message more efficiently to young people.
“The campaign aims to bring about a behavioural change in young people visiting Cambodia,” Marot said.

“You aren’t allowed to go anywhere and hug a child in your own country, why should you be able to do it here?”

The campaign is being done in cooperation with the Royal government, which in 2008 passed minimum standards of care for children in orphanages, and in 2010, a draft prakas on child care.

“Orphanages are not required to be registered; there are not standards of practices across the orphanages,” Marot said, adding that some orphanages are not registered with the government.

8 thoughts on “Cambodia Launches Anti-Voluntourism Campaign

  1. Where to start?  There are so many factual inaccuracies in this article, that I wonder whether the author has ever been to Cambodia, let alone performed any real research into the issue.  The author is completely mixing up the extremely valuable role which genuine volunteers play in helping poor and vulnerable children in Cambidia learn valuable life skills and the unacceptable practice of large (mostly foreign) tour companies exploiting them and the organisations where they reside.  

    It is true that many children in orphanages still have relatives alive, however, they either choose or simply cannot afford to keep them at home – is this the fault of the children?  However, the figure quoted by Friends International is completely ridiculous and simply not true – extrapolating statistics based upon carefully chosen examples of bad practice is a very cheap and shameful way of getting publicity and brings the organisation itself into disrepute.  The number of orphanages in Cambodia has fluctuated greatly in the period since 1995.  The recent (past 5-10 years) increase has largely been due to the closure of Cambodia to foreign adoptions. This has placed more children at risk and necessitated a rise in the number of orphanages. Despite what Friends International and other organisations might claim, domestic adoption is almost unheard of in Cambodia and, where it does happen, is often closer to bonded slavery, with ‘adopted’ children having no rights or equal access to education.  Many children now residing in orphanages have had to be rescued from local adopted families, often following involvement by the Cambidian Authorities.

    Most of the organisations who offer a home to the these children do their utmost to maintain links with living relatives or return them to their families and do NOT allow volunteer tourism. Volunteers who have something to offer the children, such as education or helping with construction of facilities are allowed in a number of places, but this is usually strictly controlled, requiring minimum stays and police checks before they are allowed to visit.  

    All orphanages and children’s homes are required to be registered and checked by MOSAVY – the Ministry for Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation. Believe me, whilst one or 2 organisations in remote locations might be able to operate under their radar, the vast majority are checked and those which attract foreign volunteers are particularly targeted.

    Yes, it is a very complicated issue and to treat it so glibly and tritely, really does those who perpetuate such sensationalist headlines no good at all.  If you really had the interests of the children at heart, you would not print such poor journalism. How about going after the REAL perpetrators, ie the foreign (often high end) tour companies. How about comparing the salaries which their executives and even the tour representatives earn to the pittance which most orphanage directors receive?

  2. Dear Charity Trustee
    Thank you for your response. Unfortunately, as you rightly point out, this article did contain many factual errors by the reporter regarding numbers of orphans and increase in orphanages which we requested the Phnom Penh Post to publish errata regarding, but they did not respond to this request. The correct data, and information on the sources it was obtained from (including MoSAVY statistics, Save the Children International reports and upcoming information from UNICEF – all wide-ranging and comprehensive studies) can be found at our website
    The thrust of our campaign is at orphanage tourism. Again this was not made clear in the Post’s reporting. Adoption is another issue, albeit linked, and one which would require extensive discussion in its own right. Incidentally, with regard to your link between closure of inter-country adoption and increasing numbers of children in orphanages over the last 5-10 years, inter-country adoption in Cambodia was actually banned in 2009, only two years ago.
    If it is possible for you to provide it, we would also very much welcome links to the sources of the information you refer to in your reply regarding the controls implemented by orphanages on external visits.
    We would like to point out, however, that it is incorrect that all institutions are required to register with MoSAVY – all international NGO’s only have to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or Ministry of Information which indeed is a very big gap in the law; some of them may have additional Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with other line ministries like the Ministry of Education or even the Ministry of Health, but even if they are running residential care services they are not obliged to be registered/have an MoU with MoSAVY.
    It is true that the MoSAVY now has an ‘’inspection unit’’ in place (supported by UNICEF), but it certainly does not cover yet ‘’the vast majority’’ of orphanages as can be seen from the complexity of the situation above. Although technically in charge of vulnerable children and orphans they are as yet not aware generally of the work of orphanages.

    Finally, our campaign is not attacking orphanages – there is a place for temporary residential care within the system of Alternative Care provision which the Royal Government of Cambodia is committed to, and the legislative process underway in the country will ensure that eventually all providers of residential care will have to meet acceptable standards of care and child protection.
    We ask orphanage tourists, or those who potentially would visit orphanages, to think again and to visit our website to learn more before they make that decision to visit. We also include practical advice for those who are thinking of volunteering with orphanages.
    Thank you,

  3. We at people and places are very happy to see the debate about child protection and exploitation. There is much bad practice out there which needs to be thwarted – but there is also much good practice and like Charity Trustee and people like David Clemmons of I am concerned that sensationalised broad brush, poorly researched journalism is simply serving to confuse potential volunteers.This is compounded by the viral effects of the instant post on all the social networks
    I have read the childsafe campaign carefully – I commend it – nowhere does it attack orphanages as such nor well placed and well prepared volunteers.
    I now intend to edit my blog article on this by adding a link to this thread and to post this continuing debate on twitter and facebook – may i ask that anyone reading this post does the same?
    We cannot ,sadly, depend on journalists to offer balanced and informed coverage of such a complex subject

  4. Charity Trustee……………..

    After 6 years in Cambodia I would say it is probably a low estimate of the current amount of non orphaned children in orphanages considering the ´few´unregistred, which I would say are not just in remote locations. You will find plenty of them in Siem Reap and the other main cities, a few might even be registred NGO´s. Required to register does not mean that its actually happening, luckily there seem to be improvements although yet I have only seen one institution being shut down, because of a foreign sexual abuser, not because of ´everyday´neglect. Which is not an isolated case, since as early as a week ago another foreigner running an orphanage was arrested on similar charges. The monitoring and follow up you are talking about would be very inadequate at the moment.

    Given you are familiar with MOSAVY you might also be familiar with the Alternative care policies and guidelines that exist for Cambodia, government policies. These policies and guidelines are also being strengthened by a Prakas (for the moment a draft) on their implementation. They are long and very useful documents which amongst other things also explain that an orphanage should only be considered an absolute last resort but not a final solution, since community based care is considered a better option and the orphanage together with MOSAVY should work towards reintegrating the child as fast and safe as possible. Something I am sure the country you are from would also agree on. Most western countries have left orphanage care behind because of the negative impact on children´s development (yes it does effect children negativly both psychologically and physically to grow up in an institution) and the abuse that was quite frequent. The Cambodian government also states itself that their goal is to move away from orphanage care and focus on community based care.

    Now lets consider for a second that most of these places might not be those great and wonderful places you are claiming and children are actually ending up in worse places than their homes. If families cant keep their children because of poverty, they should be supported to do so and if they want to give their children up should be encouraged NOT TO.

    These families mainly give up their children to orphanages because they believe the children will have better lives and better education opportunities, they want what they belive is best for their children. In many cases they are wrong since the possibilities of of abuse and neglect is very high. Some parents that have come to visit their children or to actually take them back have been denied to do so and since we are getting to that point, some never see them again, because they were sold into international adoption. There is for example a very famous case of an american woman which you can read about here:

    This, combined with the fact that the Cambodian international adoption system is not transparent, something that is being worked on and hopefully countries will maintain their ban until it is very strong, led to the decision for most countries to suspend their adoptions from Cambodia.

    If you really believe that the reason for the increase in orphanages in Cambodia depends on a lack of international adoptions I guess it comes back to what you yourself stated in your text, most of these children are not orphans and I am sure you would agree that they should then not be internationally adopted?

    With regards to children living in bondage and slavery I am guessing that you are familiar of the estimated number of orphans Cambodia, defined as a child having one or both parents that have passed away, is somewhere between 500 000- 600 000 children. There is about 12 000 of them living in orphanages and the rest would then be living with relatives or maybe other community members. Something very common in Cambodian culture, which you would also very easily see for yourself if you where to visit more rural communities. I am sure you will find this also in the more urbanized parts. Are children sometimes being abused under these circumstances? Yes for sure, there is plenty abuse of children going on in Cambodia wheather you are an adopted child or not, usually it has more to do with the social status of the family rather than some form of general despise against orphaned children. They are at bigger risk of abuse in the wrong hands because they are orphaned and therefore more vulnerable. But since again we are not actually talking about that many fully orphaned children, since 72% of them in the orphanages have one or both parents alive, maybe they would have been better off staying where they where.

    Now lets add a little a little spice to this whole scenario. How about if a lot of these orphanages have very little in place to make sure that the young adults they have raised get reintegrated. I am guessing since you do believe orphanages are a great solution you also want the cute children to grow up and be healthy functioning adults, not end up in vulnerable positions on the streets or in slave labor. It is very easy to institutionalize children and very difficult to de-instutionalize them. The longer they stay in an orphanage the more work it is to make sure that they get a positive life. The research that has been done show that these young adults are scared and have overwhelming difficultites to adapt to a world outside the orphanage. Even the young adults that have had good results in studying, even up to university levels and speak good English have ended up in very bad situations because they lack connections to communities, family and friends outside of the institution.

    Do I believe that there is a place for orphanages? If they where functioning the way they are supposed to and following the Alternative Care guidelines they would be considered temporary protection centers, where children live until better solutions are found. If that was the case there would probably be a lot less than there are now. Many orphanages are created on the false pretence that they are filling a gap, to make money or to convert children into christians (close to 1/3 of the orphanages are established by a church who happily announce that they convert the children in Cambodia). I will add that this is not an attack on christian organizations, there are plenty that do a great job without forcing their religion on children. There are plenty of better solutions instead of orphanage care, even if it had to be long term care of children. However, as long as people keep trying to sell orphanage care as the best solution the best solutions are not gonna come.

    Misguided funding from tourists are probably one major reasons why there are so many orphanages in Siem Reap, not international adoptions. Since 2005 the orphanages has increased rapidly and so has tourist arrivals. No obviously you cant find a report which can compare this but given most of these orphanages states themselves that they mainly live of tourist donations it would be fair to say that without the tourists they would probably not have been there. These orphanages are living of tourist donations with open door policy for them to come and play with children, they bring their children out on the streets to beg for money and as I am sure you can figure out with that comes a lot of child protection issues. Given the experience you also seem to have with well run orphanages I believe a visit to the less well functioning places would make you inclined to agree.

    These orphanages are also extremely well used by the volunteers you mention and have children interacting with foreign volunteers on a daily basis on a high turnover. The life skills these children go away with is continuous abandonment from volunteers they get attached to and detachment because a lack of strong caregivers. In several cases like mentioned above there have also been cases of sexual abuse. Where do these children come from? You guessed it, they most of the time are not orphaned and belong to poor families that have given them up in the belief that this is a better opportunity for their child. You could even claim that they have been deceived in believing so, which would make this practise very close to internal trafficking since the orphanage owners also makes money of the children when they are sent out to beg for their living.

    I hope that enlightened the issue a bit because I dont believe it to be in the best interest of Cambodian children to present a false view of the orphanage situation in Cambodia and you obviously seem to be very keen on making sure that children should be able to have their rights protected. Be thankful that somebody is actually finally trying to highlight this problem which is a serious cause of the abuse of vulnerable children in Cambodia and elsewhere. What has been mentioned here is only scratching the surface of this issue.

  5. Pingback: The Voluntourism Debate « African Impact Blog

  6. Voluntourism as i observed it in the 7 years in Cambodia is more like a Holiday Entertainment Program for many Backpackers than actually helping Cambodians, Children in particular since they are the main target of the voluntourism industry. Most Volunteers just do it to have a bit of fun and… have something to put on their CV. For Children this constant change of Faces and People is like they are beeing a Zoo attraction. The kids often feel attached to a Volunteer which after some time will simply move on on his Holiday Tour plunging the kid in another depression. Friends in Phnom Penh is a bit of a hypocrit here because they too use kids as a main tourist attraction and even show naked kids in their video clips they uploaded on youtube. Foreign Adoptions as meantioned here are another case of concern. Italy for example got the permission from the Cambodian Government to adopt cambodian children, in the midst of a total stop of Donations decided by the cambodian government a few years ago. You have to read this link, written by an italian on the subject:

    What i found most disturbing is how much children in Cambodia and many other countries around the globe have become a commodity. The Russian Government decided in 2012 to stop all adoptions to the US, for good reason after an american woman simply dumped her adopted kid on a plane destined for moscow.

    Most forein funded and initiated charities and aid businesses have a hidden agenda and aid many time ends up in a classy new SUV and hefty salaries for the foreign staff of these NGO’s. In 2010 for example the average annual salary for a country director of a foreign funded NGO in Cambodia was 250.000 USD plus benefits etc., mostly tax free.

    I am convinced that when we can put a Stop to this Voluntourism Zoo it will be for the better of Cambodia and the Khmer people. And that’s all i’m concerned about.

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