Australians being ripped off in exploitative orphanage ‘industry’

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Australians being ripped off in exploitative orphanage ‘industry’

Australians who visit or volunteer in orphanages overseas are at risk of being ripped-off and are fuelling a thriving new industry that is exploiting children.


Habitat for Humanity, the world’s number one not-for-profit provider of housing for low income families in need, has warned that the surging growth of ‘voluntourism’ that focuses on visiting or volunteering in orphanages is actually exploiting children and placing them at risk of abuse.

Voluntourism is a massive business worldwide with an estimated 1.6 million people opting to volunteer overseas making it a $2.6 billion industry.

“There are a growing number of Australians who are paying thousands of dollars to volunteer in orphanages in countries such as Cambodia, yet while their hearts are in the right place, their actions can be exploited,” according to Habitat for Humanity Australia’s chief executive, Martin Thomas, who has just returned from Cambodia.

“In Cambodia there has been a 65% increase in the number of orphanages since 2005, despite a decrease in the number of vulnerable children and orphans.  Tragically, often little or none of the money given by tourists or volunteers goes to benefit the children.”

It is believed 72% of children living in orphanages still have parents. Mr Thomas said the growing popularity of orphanages among tourists and volunteers has created ‘a demand’ for orphans which is leading to ‘orphan recruitment drives’ in which Cambodian parents are being tricked, coerced or paid to give up their children.

The situation in Cambodia is so bad now that UNICEF has supported a public awareness campaign to highlight the exploitation of children that is occurring when tourists and volunteers visit orphanages in Cambodia.

Despite this disturbing trend, there are many organisations that offer volunteer experiences that work within communities to achieve long term, sustainable development and build capacity, as opposed to dependency.Habitat for Humanity Australia has been sending teams of volunteers to build homes for families in need through its Global Village program since 2001. In the last 13 years the Global Village program has supported over 4000 volunteers to travel and work across the Asia Pacific. They have built 350 homes for families in need.

Mr Thomas said if a person was contemplating volunteering overseas in a poorer country they should consider making a careful assessment of the organisation they are planning to work with. These include asking the following questions:

1. Does the activity respect the rights of children and families?

Make sure the organisation has sufficient child protection policies in place. Without child protection policies and background checks on visitors, mistreatment and abuse can go undetected. Families have the right to a safe and private home setting.  Ensure the project does not violate the safety, privacy and stability of families.

2. What work will you be doing?

There should be a clear outline of the activities you will be undertaking for the duration of your stay. Look for opportunities which aim to help in a way that is both sustainable and effective as opposed to building dependency of people in need.For longer term volunteering make sure there is a job description available for the position you are undertaking. Also evaluate if you feel qualified for the activity you are undertaking –  many opportunities may not require special skills or provide onsite training but others may put you in a position that you may not be skilled for e.g. teaching, health care.

3. How are costs broken down?

Make sure the organisation you are signing up to support have a transparent cost structure and can tell you exactly where your money will be spent, from donations to a project to administration costs.

4. How are volunteers selected?

Make sure there is an application process for the activity you are undertaking, especially if it involves working with children. If an organisation allows you to walk in off the street and start interacting with families or children, then question the quality or security of the program.

Click here for more details on Habitat for Humanity Australia’s Global Village builds.

If you would like further information, please contact our Marketing, Communications and Fundraising Manager, Michelle Turpie, on 02 9919 7000 or email mturpie@habitat.org.au.

Comments (2)

  1. Orphanage voluntourism in Nepal places children at risk | Habitat For Humanity Australia
    4 years ago

    […] them at risk of abuse. Late last year we issued a warning about the rise of bogus orphanages in Cambodia, despite a decrease in the number of vulnerable children and orphans throughout the country. But […]

  2. voluntourism | their usual ramblings
    4 years ago

    […] and psychological damage in relation to abandonment. Additionally, in countries such as Cambodia and Nepal, voluntourism has contributed to an increase of child trafficking, with fake orphanages […]

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