When I was sixteen, I went to Cambodia with a large group of people to undertake probably the worst voluntourism project I've ever been on.
Which poor Cambodian families need to be saved? Never fear! We’re coming in with our privilege and construction hammers, and leaving behind 10 tin houses!
As you may have gotten from that oh-so-sarcastic comment, the only thing I got out of that trip was a bitter taste in my mouth.
And that was just the beginning.
After house-build, the head of the group organized for us to visit an orphanage, which I didn’t see the harm in. We were going to play soccer with the kids--they’d have fun, we’d have fun and it could be an all-around fun day.
I’m so glad I didn’t end up going. The next day, I was given a flyer with the words, “Orphans aren’t zoo animals.” The image was of a little kid in a cage.
Orphanages in Cambodia are an industry, and one that just keeps growing. In fact, the number of orphanages there has grown by 75% in the last decade! Logically, the number of orphans should be growing by the same amount, right? But over three-fourths of kids in these orphanages have living parents, according to UNICEF.
That’s right--orphanages aren’t expanding to house more orphans, they’re expanding because they can make money off of tourists.
But wait, how do they get there?
Similar to many cases of human trafficking in Asia, parents are told that their kids are going to stay in a nice place and get a good education from foreigners.
This is how the orphanage visit went: the group paid to get in, the children put on a little show for them, they played soccer together, and then left. Not only do visitors pay the orphanages (either through an entry fee, or sympathetic donation), but also the foreign volunteers who work in some of them.
A show is pretty standard in any exploitative orphanage in Cambodia--framing the $15 visit as "entertainment" makes it more palatable. What people don’t know is that these kids perform the exact same thing for the next group that comes in. And the next, and the next. Multiple groups come in a day, from early in the morning until late at night.
I almost forgot about the tour! When you’re invited to someone’s (in this case, almost 12,000 “someone”s) home, you walk around the place. You go into the kitchen, hang out in the play area and sometimes in the children’s bedrooms...
No, I'm not kidding about the bedrooms. A lot of the orphanages don’t do background checks on the visitors either, which puts the kids in dangerous and compromising situations.
Even though ages spanned from 4 to 40 in my well-traveled and well-intentioned voluntourism group, no one knew that this was what they were funding. Even so, I strongly believe that no one should visit orphanages for recreation in any case, where hope of being adopted can come and go with the visitor. I can only imagine how emotionally damaging that would be.
With any kind of tourism or voluntourism opportunity in a developing country, the question must be asked: what is the greater, long-term impact that I'm having on this community? What do the people in the community actually need? In this case, what Cambodia doesn't need are people paying for a trip through child exploitation.
Global Citizens should strive to make only positive impacts on people's lives, but this can only be done by staying informed.