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Orphanage tourism: why you should avoid it

A new campaign launched by Friends International today encourages travellers to stop visiting orphanages in Cambodia. The campaign asks tourists to take photos of Friends’ posters around Cambodia and post them with a link to the Friends’ website on Twitter and Facebook to warn other travellers of the damage such visits can cause. We asked Friends’ Executive Director Sebastien Marot a few questions about the background to the campaign.

Now this is a sight to see.

Now this is a sight to see.

What triggered the campaign’s introduction today?

As this campaign is aimed at travellers, we timed our campaign to launch just prior to one of the main tourist seasons in Cambodia.

Is it true to say that even calling the places kids are being institutionalised in Cambodia orphanages is incorrect, given about three-quarters of the children still have living parents?

Technically these are all temporary residential care centres. Orphanages is a term generally used and often (mis)understood by the public. Although many of the children do have a living parent or parents, their situation is much the same as a ‘true’ orphan, in that they have been physically removed from their family and community for social or other reasons.

In Thailand we understand that it’s not unusual for poor families to put their children into such institutions for a few years, but the understanding is that the children will return home when they can afford to look after them. Is there a similar situation in Cambodia?

Do you know which research has taken place on this situation in Thailand? We would be grateful if you could share with us. [Ed: No research, but heard this repeatedly anecdotally in the 2000s.]

The alternative care continuum in Cambodia does allow for this, but one difficulty is the current model of residential care in Cambodia is still very much based on the needs that were prevalent in the immediate post Khmer Rouge/conflict years, and does not reflect Cambodia as it is in the 21st century.

What is being done at the government level, if anything, to encourage families to keep their children with them rather than put them into institutions? Outside the government, are many NGOs working on this?

The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) issued minimum standards for care in 2008. In 2010 a draft praka regarding alternative care was adopted by the RGC.

At the moment a core group of organisations are involved in implementing this, as the roll out gathers momentum then more will become involved.

We see from your figures that the number of orphanages in Cambodia has grown by 65% since 2005, correlating to the rise in tourism. Do you believe there is direct causation? Are other factors at play as well, such as women relocating to urban centres to work in the garment sector in order to support their families?

This is an interesting trend, however at this time no firm evidence exists to indicate that there is direct correlation. However, given the development progress made in Cambodia this century, what is the justification for this increase? It would suggest that there is indeed a link.

How does having children in these institutions harm their development and emotional well-being?

Please visit our website for more information. Many global studies have also highlighted the impact of institutionalisation upon young people. Please see for instance this from Save the Children.

Once people have spread the word about the perils of visiting orphanages, what can they do if they want to help keep families together while on their travels, or afterwards?

Our suggestion is to support organisations who invest time and energy in strengthening families and communities, allowing children to remain with the family rather than being placed into residential care. Our campaign website gives some information on organisations like these.

About the author:
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.

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