Oct 20 2011

Orphanage tourism: why you should avoid it

Published by at 4:54 pm under Volunteering in Cambodia


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.

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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Orphanage tourism: why you should avoid it”

  1. Adam @ SitDownDiscoon 20 Oct 2011 at 5:38 pm

    I don’t know much about this situation, but one thing I observed when I was in Cambodia in 2009 is that every man and his dog has a charity of some sort and is canvassing for donations. With so many trying to help who presumably aren’t experts in this field, the social consequences are going to be significant. Maybe lots of kids are being shunted into orphanages because the level of care is much better than they get at home… and if the orphanages are funded by rich Westerners, then there is a ready of supply of money to give to people to improve their lot. If I was dirt poor and could make sure my kid ate everyday and had some education, I’d send them to one of these places too. Sounds like a total balls-up to me!

    Even here in Indonesia people feel guilty about the poverty that is around them and they do things, trying to be helpful, and the consequences are almost always negative.

  2. Larson 20 Oct 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but “Orphanage tourism: why you should avoid it” is not answered in this interview…

    So, why? What exactly is the bad effect of tourism to these institutions?

  3. Samanthaon 20 Oct 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Thanks Lars — yes, you’re right — the question’s not really answered directly in the interview, but the short answer is it’s not good for the children (my sub editing bad). You can find a more comprehensive answer at the Friends International site as well as the Save the Children link, both given in the second to last answer.

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