Orphanage tourism and Cambodia’s fight to end it

orphanage tourism

In Cambodia, it’s not uncommon for tourists to be offered tours of local orphanages in the same way they’re offered tours of Angkor Wat.

It might be tempting to accept the opportunity to experience “the real Cambodia,” especially when you’re confronted by extreme poverty at every turn. But before you do, a new campaign backed by international NGO Friends-International and UNICEF asks you to think again.

“Travelers care for Cambodia and are often disturbed by the perceived situation of children,” said Sebastien Marot, Executive Director of Friends-International, whose headquarters are in Cambodia. “It is essential for them to understand the real situation and what positive actions they can take to effectively protect and support these children.”

A recent study of Cambodia’s residential institutions showed that the rapidly growing practice of “orphanage tourism” actually does more harm than good, violating the rights of children and contributing to the separation of families. The study revealed that 72 percent of children living in institutions labeled “orphanages” have at least one living parent, and that the number of these types of institutions has grown in recent years, despite the fact that the number of orphaned and vulnerable children has shrunk. The study also showed that a number of these orphanage tourism schemes are run by unscrupulous business operators, and many aren’t regulated.Orphanages in themselves aren’t bad, but visitors must be aware of the effects of their actions. The Friends/UNICEF campaign encourages tourists to ask themselves a number of questions before they decide to visit an orphanage, including:

  • Are visitors allowed to just drop in and have direct access to children without supervision? Orphanages that allow strangers off the street to interact with children unsupervised, without conducting sufficient background checks, are not protecting the interests of the children.
  • Are children required to work or participate in securing funds for the orphanage? The songs and dances may be cute, but they can also be viewed as child labor and groom children for begging and street work that leaves them open to exploitation.
  • Does the orphanage have an active family reunification program? The extended family plays an important role in Cambodian culture, and efforts should be made to reunite orphaned children with family members that can care for them.

One of the most important questions, though, is one visitors should ask themselves.

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

To learn more about positive ways to protect children in your travels, check out these seven tips from Friends-International.