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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Voluntourism: Modern Slavery in Orphanages

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Modern slavery

With dreams of giving their children a better life, thousands of impoverished families in Cambodia send their children to orphanages. Yet, most of their dreams end up shattered. Modern slavery in orphanages has been a deep-seated issue in Cambodia, which leads to orphans living miserable lives. As per the United Nations International Labour Organisation, contemporary slavery takes various forms, such as forced prostitution or exploitative child labour. The latter prevailing across many orphanages, as a high number of orphans are reportedly forced to work for long hours, and are subject to physical and sexual abuse when they refuse to follow instructions, as revealed by NGOs.


Ironically, voluntourism, a combination of well-intentioned humanitarian volunteer work with holidays, further aggravates this vexing problem. Given the generous donations by volunteers, directors of several orphanages run a lucrative business by using orphans as a commodity to attract donations from volunteers during their visits. They dress orphans in shabby clothes, starve them to make them look malnourished, force them into rehearsing and performing for visitors, send them out to beg for funds and “advertise” the orphanage to volunteers on streets. This marks an intensification of child abuse resulting from increased orphanage visits by volunteers.

Whilst volunteers donate a good sum of money out of sympathy and kind intentions, directors embezzle the money into their own pockets, leaving little, if none, to the orphans. This source of income has since then become an incentive for many to build more and more orphanages. The growth of available orphanages around impoverished communities encourages poor families, with misguided hopes of the better resources the orphanage can provide their children, to send their kids there. According to an interview by the Guardian, what make the whole problem worse is that orphanages start stealing children from streets without any parental permission or paying parents to get their kids so as to create a more crowded environment of orphans to attract donations, adding to the existing prevalence of human trafficking. The escalating trend of voluntourism has indeed put more children under the risk of exploitation and slavery.


Orphanages have been trying to enlarge the predicament of the children to attract more donations from visitors. However, what visitors see is no exaggeration; It is perhaps a miniature. The reality is far more worse than that. The crux of this issue hinges on the widespread poverty across the whole nation since the Pol Pot regime, the genocide that cleared all vestiges of prosperity in Cambodia. The Government has recently launched plans to reunite “fake” orphans with their parents and stop the operation of unscrupulous orphanages, which in fact marks a good start in combating the problem. However, what is more crucial is implementing stronger poverty alleviation policies, solving the root cause of the vicious cycle of tragedies on the children.

Another important factor is the generous support to bogus orphanages by voluntourists. In fact, many volunteers and even the Government are unaware of which orphanages are care homes, and which torture centres. There has never existed a complete tracking of orphanages since more than 38% of them have never been inspected according to official reports. To put a halt to slavery, a more rigorous supervision of orphanages is required to weed out the bad-intentioned ones and stop volunteers from supporting their exploitative practices. Merely governmental efforts are not enough though; countries where most volunteers come from plays an important role. Those States, such as Australia, should supervise the choice of orphanages in their own volunteer service groups through setting up agencies or legislation, as suggested by West Australian Liberal senator Linda Reynolds.

What matters in life after all is happiness. Happiness is free. It should not be made difficult to gain for young and innocent children. With all these efforts, I still believe that one day more children in Cambodia can enjoy a blissful childhood with their families and those in orphanages can really grow up in a safe and happy environment, free from slavery.

Serena Chan

Asia Feature Writer

2nd May, 2018


Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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