Along with many others, I watched with interest Sabour Bradley’s recent report on orphanage tourism in Cambodia. While the show, justifiably, has drawn criticism, it has served to highlight an important issue.
Orphanage tourism presents an appealing option for young people and others travelling to developing countries. Often with the best of intentions, they spend time visiting these orphanages and partaking in short-term volunteer opportunities. It can be a planned or spontaneous response by travellers to the obvious hardship evident for many children in developing countries.
However, it is likely that the nature and scale of volunteer tourism is doing more harm than good. The lack of regulation of residential care facilities is problematic and children are at great risk of abuse and exploitation. The failure to screen volunteers, lack of supervision, the economic exploitation by owners and middlemen, and the incentives created for parents to place their children into orphanages create huge risks for children. There is also evidence to show that it is disruptive and potentially detrimental to children’s psychological health and development to form and sever multiple short-term attachments with the many volunteer caregivers coming through for just a few weeks at a time.
What the Head First show didn’t highlight is that there are genuine efforts by the Cambodian Government, UN agencies and responsible NGOs to start to regulate orphanages. These efforts should be strongly supported and fast-tracked. Only recently I met with the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs and discussed this issue. Government moves to increase inspections, close sub-standard facilities, return children to their parents, prosecute those exploiting children and discourage volunteer tourism are all steps in the right direction, but need support. The Ministry was very interested in my experience as a social worker in Australia back in the 1980s when extensive work was undertaken to close residential care facilities, return children to their parents and ensure that those facilities that remained were of good standard.
We can be too quick to forget that thousands of Australian children were in largely unregulated residential care facilities not so long ago as powerfully told by former residents during the landmark Forgotten Australians Inquiry.
ChildFund and other responsible NGOs are working with the Cambodian Government and local partners to improve child protection in Cambodia. To best help vulnerable Cambodian children, better conditions and opportunities have to be created for children and families in rural villages to reduce the drivers that see children placed in orphanages to begin with. And we must continue to raise awareness of child rights, keep children safe and address not only the physical needs of children but their emotional and psychological health.
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