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Petition to Stop Tour Operators Sending Volunteers to Orphanages

by Sam Clark

I’d strongly encourage you to support this campaign by Tourism Concern, to stop tour operators and commercial volunteering organisations from sending volunteers to work in orphanages abroad. Tourism Concern launched a petition earlier and as members of Tourism Concern’s ethical tour operators association, ETOG and from our own research and knowledge of the issue, we fully support this campaign.

Sending volunteers to work in orphanages overseas is wrong. I’ll let Mark Watson, Executive Director of Tourism Concern explain:

“There are still a significant number of tour operators and commercial volunteering organisations in the UK promoting volunteering at orphanages and this has to stop. Children are being separated from their families and are often forced to live in squalid institutions that masquerade as orphanages while well-meaning but misguided tourists are then invited to volunteer as “carers” as part of a holiday experience.

Additionally our research suggests: 

  • Only 33% of the money donated to orphanages is spent on childcare;
  • Up to 90% of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent;
  • The number of orphanages in Cambodia has doubled in 5 years, while the number of orphan children has halved;
  • $30 – the price some institutions pay families to “rent” children;
  • Very little of the volunteer fee is received by the orphanages;
  • It is 5 or 6 times more expensive to institutionalise a child than support a family;
  • It is 3 times more expensive to institutionalise a child than foster care.

Whilst we appreciate that many well-meaning people may wish to volunteer at an orphanage our view is that looking after vulnerable children should be undertaken by local, full-time, professional staff and not by short-term volunteers, no matter how skilled or qualified. A child in an institution needs stability and long term support – not a revolving door of volunteers. Equally managing, training and supervising a volunteer takes time and resources that would be better spent on child care by the professionals. There is a reason why tour operators don’t organise volunteering placements to children’s homes in the UK – it simply isn’t appropriate – so why do people think it is OK to do so overseas?

Though we fully support DBS checks (formerly ‘CRB checks’) on volunteers this alone will not ensure the safety of the children (Jimmy Saville would have passed a CRB check). For many volunteers this will be their first experience working with children so they will need proper training, supervision and support, which is unlikely on a 4 week ‘volunteering holiday’.

We believe that:

  1. Children are best looked after in families or foster homes, not institutions;
  2. Looking after children isn’t a holiday so tour operators shouldn’t be selling them;
  3. Working with vulnerable children is a long term specialised responsibility and best left to local professionals;
  4. There are many other ways to support local organisations working with young people (see Friends International)
  5. Volunteers need to be realistic and honest about why they are volunteering. As orphanage.no state “If you are not a childcare professional, social worker, or child psychologist, well versed in local culture and language, you need to ask yourself what value you really bring.”

In the aftermath of 2004 Asian Tsunami in Sri Lanka, I saw for myself how ill-trained volunteers were sent to ‘orphanages’ and other tsunami-related institutions quickly set up to cater to and make money from well-meaning tourists wishing to help. Although I saw no evidence that children were moved into these tsunami orphanages deliberately, dark rumours of the kind persisted and in any case it was clear the tourists were being exploited, their lack of cultural understanding was having an adverse effect, building resentments and of course putting vulnerable children in danger. The companies in the UK profiting from this were at best, not fully investigating the consequences of their actions. I was approached by a well known UK Tour Operator with a view to setting up a programme for them, and when I tried to explain the reasons I felt it was ill-advised, the company just didn’t want to listen.

I sincerely believe that spending your money in the normal way is the best way to contribute to livelihoods, particularly if you eat in local restaurants and as well as the main sites, try and get that little bit off the beaten track. It’s not quite the same issue, but Experience Travel Group banned orphanage visits from our Cambodia holidays as soon as we realised they were becoming a feature of tourism in Cambodia about 5 years ago. There are still many companies promoting these visits as ‘ethical tourism’ on the ground they bring money to the orphanages, but we sincerely believe that spending money as a tourist is a better way to bring money to the country and has far less potential for negative unintended consequences.

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