By Sonia Elks
LONDON, Oct 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Well-meaning Western students who volunteer at orphanages are fuelling the abuse and trafficking of children, British author J.K. Rowling said on Thursday, as she launched a campaign against so-called 'voluntourism'.
Propped up by donations and foreign aid, orphanages are a lucrative business and provide a home to millions of children.
But at least eight in 10 children in orphanages have a living parent, often living in poverty, and many children are trafficked into care, according to Lumos, a children's charity founded by the woman who invented boy wizard Harry Potter.
"Some orphanages are set up literally to exploit children — in other word, the children are the bait for the foreign donations," Rowling said at the One Young World youth summit.
"Often these young [travellers] will come away [from the orphanage] believing they did good and are appalled when the facts are laid out in front of them and they realise that they may have contributed to the perpetuation of abuse," she continued.
Extreme poverty, war, and disaster all force families to give up children to orphanages, says Lumos, but most could be cared for by their families or home communities with enough support.
As she launched the #HelpingNotHelping campaign, Rowling was joined by two young people who had been in care and who called for children like them to be kept with their families.
Ruth Wacuka, who grew up in an orphanage next to a giraffe sanctuary in Kenya, said she had witnessed foreign volunteers treating her orphanage as a tourist attraction.
"You can imagine how many people came to Africa to see the giraffes. So they would go the giraffe centre and take photos of the giraffes; come to the orphanage and take photos of me. We should never let children look like tourist attractions," she said.
Eluxon Tassy, who was in care as a child in Haiti, said he had seen a stream of volunteers arriving with a promise of safety and love, only to leave and never be seen again.
The #HelpingNotHelping campaign is calling on businesses, schools, and universities to stop donating to orphanages and ensure they do not promote or take part in orphanage trips.
Rowling said young travellers should instead back projects that tackle poverty or support communities.
"If that money and that energy was repurposed into charities and projects that are supporting community services, or families, we could solve this problem within decades," she said.
The British government says volunteering in orphanages "can have serious unintended consequences for vulnerable children" and "may unknowingly contribute towards child exploitation" in its official advice for travellers.
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Tom Finn and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)