Why we’re rethinking orphanage tourism

written by Intrepid Travel January 13, 2017

There are about eight million kids living in orphanages and residential care facilities around the world. Here’s the thing, though: four out of five of them have a living parent or family member. In Cambodia, the number of orphanages has grown by 75% over the past decade, yet technically, the number of orphans has decreased. How is this possible?

Most children living in residential care facilities – especially in developing nations like Cambodia and Indonesia – are not orphans at all. Often, they’re simply kids from poor backgrounds. Families in remote communities are coerced into believing that sending their child away will give them a better education, a better life. In rural Nepal and Uganda, kids are taken by ‘recruiters’ to ‘boarding schools’ in the city, only to be sold into institutions as ‘orphans’, their papers falsified. Children have become a commodity.

What has travel got to do with this?

Alarmingly, tourism is a major contributor to this cycle of abuse and trafficking. In fact, ‘orphanage tourism’ and ‘voluntourism’ have become lucrative industries – and demand is growing. Keeping more and more kids in run-down residential institutions – underfed, sickly, without toys and proper clothing – is good for business, as it elicits sympathy from volunteers and visiting travellers and thus, more money. The thing is, most travellers, donors and volunteers just want to help. They have no idea this is happening.


Of course, not all orphanages are corrupt. Some do great work in providing vulnerable kids with a safe place to eat, sleep and learn. But institutionalisation itself is harmful. Kids brought up in residential care suffer learning and developmental difficulties, as well as attachment problems stemming from instability and a lack of one-on-one attention. One study suggests that children who grow up in residential care are 500 times more likely to take their own lives and 50 times more likely to end up involved in crime, drug use and/or prostitution. The effects of institutionalisation are life-long and intergenerational.

So what, then?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix. There will always be children in need of support. But what’s the best way to take care of them? This is where ReThink Orphanages steps in. ReThink Orphanages is a cross-sector network striving to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children by changing the way we think about overseas aid, development and tourism. Their focus is on permanent solutions that ensure all children are able to grow up in a family.

For all children, permanency planning is an important part of assessing family care options. UNICEF defines permanency planning as a process to ensure stability, continuity, and a sense of belonging to a family. Permanency planning is critical to prevent the separation of children from their families, to reconnect children in care with their original family, or to place children within a permanent family through a relative who obtains custody, guardianship, or adoption. Short-term alternative care options are used only as a step in the process toward permanency. Once a child has been separated from parental care, family-based care options should be given priority over residential care.

Poverty offers huge challenges to children’s wellbeing, but it’s not a justification for separating them from their families and communities. Instead, we should be directing our support into community-based projects that fight poverty, family violence and addiction at the roots, work to improve local education and employment opportunities, and most importantly, seek to reunite kids with their families.

What is Intrepid doing to help?

For one, we’re getting the word out there. While in the past some of our tours visited organisations that had residential care as part of their programs, the decision was made to no longer visit out of concern for the impact frequent visitation could have.

Through the Intrepid Foundation we support grass-roots organisations across Africa, Asia and Latin America that provide vulnerable kids with healthcare, counselling, education and other vital support services through our Foundation. There’s Blue Dragon in Vietnam, for example, an NGO that rescues kids in need – disabled kids, victims of human trafficking and slavery – and aims to reunite them with their families, while providing ongoing services for recovery, self-sufficiency and growth.  The Amani Children’s Home provides similar support services for children in need in Tanzania.Orphanage_tourism_tanzania_amani_teddy-and-agnesiWe need to establish a clear framework that determines the best way for tourism and children’s support services to work together and preserve the rights of kids around the world.  In collaboration with ReThink Orphanages, we’ll be working closely with our partners to help them develop best practice and alternative models of care within their programs.

What can you do?

Plenty. You can help us get the word out about orphanage tourism. Learn more about it. Tell your friends. Share this blog. When travelling, don’t visit orphanages or use tour companies that do. It might seem hard to tell what’s what, but a simple rule of thumb is that there should never be any interaction with kids in any kind of residential care institution. These places go by many different names: orphanage, children’s village, children’s home, shelter, home, boarding school etc.  That doesn’t mean you can’t visit other NGOs and projects, of course. Just make sure you’re among adults and there to learn about sustainable, well-vetted initiatives – like the Seven Women handicraft workshop in Nepal, for example.

Secondly, if you do want to volunteer overseas, do your research. Observe. Ask yourself: are you really helping? Who’s actually benefitting here? Remember that you don’t have to be a volunteer to do good. By being a socially conscious, locally minded traveller, you can invest in local communities and help fight issues from the ground up. Spend your money at local markets and shops. Buy street food and use local transport. Stay at locally owned guesthouses.

Finally, if you’d like to donate, direct your money into programs that focus on community development and local, family-based care – organisations that provide vital services like education, health and counselling, and, where possible, work to keep children with their relatives.

To support The Intrepid Foundation’s collaboration with ReThink Orphanages and help make these programs ever better and more accountable, click here.

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