Volunteer tourism fuels orphanage ‘crisis’

In the story of orphan Oliver Twist, he was brave enough to search for a better life. In the story of orphan Annie, she imagined the sun would come out and tomorrow would be a better day. But in reality, most orphans around the world are not faced with hopefulness. 

According to Victorian-based child advocacy organisation Save the Children, eight million children worldwide are living in orphanages. And the sad reality is that many of these children are mistreated. Aljazeera reporter Julia Ruhfus went undercover in Cambodia to investigate these allegations of misconduct, and found that a lot of the children in orphanages are starved, isolated and abused. She also discovered that the majority of the children were in fact not orphans. 

In a report actioning change, Save the Children says that in order to meet the growing demand of tourists wanting to support poor children, orphanages have taken kids from their parents by convincing them they would be better off in their care. While some organisations say all orphanages should be closed down regardless of whether they are doing the right thing, others such as local charity Nakuru Hope argue that some children would ‘die on the streets’ if they were not taken in.

Millions of kids globally have been trafficked into orphanages by being taken from their families, and ultimately used to make money. Photo: Hannah Salt.

In November 2018, Australia became the first country to recognise orphanage trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery. It was introduced as a part of the Modern Slavery Bill and essentially means that large travel companies have to report on any potential sources of modern slavery within their organisation, and how they are looking to address those issues. They report to the Commonwealth, with the statement then made publicly available on a central register. 

The Act was prompted by companies who are a part of ReThink Orphanages: a network formed to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children around the world by changing the way society views overseas aid, tourism and development.

A part of this alliance is Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel, which in 2015 became the first major company to stop volunteering trips to child-care institutions. 

“Visits to orphanages and philanthropic support has fuelled the growth of orphanages, despite the fact that the number of orphans globally is declining,” Intrepid Travel Responsible Business Manager Liz Manning says.

Intrepid Travel believes that help from volunteers should be focused on supporting community-based projects fighting poverty, ultimately improving local employment opportunities and education. 

Despite this, people are often unintentionally donating money to corrupt orphanages, which has ultimately fuelled what experts call the ‘Global Orphanage Crisis’. More donations go into orphanages. More orphanages open. More children are taken from their families. But Kate van Doore, an academic specialising in orphanage trafficking at Griffith University Law School, says it is not as easy as just stopping donations to corrupt organisations. She says it is important for those who are funding orphanages to continue, but should start understanding the harm they are potentially doing.

“With the proliferation of orphanages because of the demand for orphanage funding and voluntourism, a child protection crisis is created where the system really can’t function as it should,” she says. “That takes away from the kids who need help, like the ones who are in abusive situations.”

Co-founder of ReThink Orphanages Leigh Mathews says that although not all orphanages are unethical, residential care in itself can be harmful.

“We’ve got 70 years of scientific data that tells us children who grow up in institutions experience significant issues in regard to their development [and] they have problems with forming close, secure relationships due to attachment disorders,” Mathews says.

Research shows there is no way to easily fix the problem. Children around the world will always be in need of care and support. But how do we know the best mode of care?

An important part of assessing options for children without a stable family is looking at permanency planning. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund defines this as the process of ensuring a child has continuity, stability and a sense of family and belonging. Permanency planning helps place children with extended family, through adoption, gaining custody or family-based care such as foster parenting.

However, in places such as sub-Saharan Africa, the persistent presence of HIV/AIDS can make family-based care extremely difficult. According to UNICEF, the region has 14 times more deaths from HIV/AIDS than in higher-income countries. In the 2013 epidemic, 17.7 million children lost at least one parent to HIV/AIDS – most living in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Sub-Saharan Africa is affected by HIV/AIDS more than any other country. Photo: Hannah Salt

This has led to an overstretched demand for families to protect and care for these children, and for UNICEF to change the definition of an orphan to ‘a child under 18 years of age who has lost one or both parents to any cause of death’.

The combination of the high rates of HIV/AIDS alongside the increasing poverty levels in Kenya, means many kids are being placed in institutional care or ultimately living and trying to survive on the streets. 

So what happens to the children who are abandoned, who would otherwise be homeless?

Susan Saleeba was the winner of the John Curtin Medal for 2018. Photo: Hannah Salt

Perth-born Susan Saleeba is the founder of an ethical foundation called Nakuru Hope – a 100 per cent not-for-profit organisation that looks after children in an orphanage, provides schooling for Kenyan children and helps their community through humanitarian work. Saleeba’s aim is to address the gap between poverty and affluence through education. She believes a lack of literacy can lead to impoverished conditions and poor health, the breakdown of families and in the worst case, the abandonment of a child. 

The 2018 John Curtin Medal winner was honoured for her work in providing a safe family environment for children who have been abandoned or are in need of refuge for a short time, as they face domestic assault and instability. Only children from the direst situations of abuse and neglect are housed in the orphanage, with efforts to incorporate the children into the community and re-home them where possible.

“Poverty should never be a reason a child is taken out of their home.”

Liz Manning, Intrepid Travel Responsible Business Manager
Video: Hannah Salt

Mathews, co-founder of ReThink Orphanages, argues that all youth residential care institutions need to focus on alternative modes of care. 

“Often these children have really complex and traumatic histories and have been separated from their families,” she says. “They require specialised support from primary caregivers that understand their background, their history, their culture and their context.”

“What’s the choice? They’ll live on the street and die.”

Susan Saleeba, Founder of Nakuru Hope

Saleeba knows that orphanage care is often not the best model for children, but explains that sometimes it is the only option a child has. She says the Kenyan government has the money to help but choose not to spend it ‘helping their own people’. The children she looks after are not taken out of their homes, rather placed in her care by the courts who dictate whether a child is an orphan.

“It’s not us just going in there and picking up a kid, saying ‘right you’re mine now’,” she says. “It’s a court process. It’s lucky we get the kids in our orphanage. If they were to go to a children’s reform school – I wouldn’t even let my animals go there – there’s beating, a lack of food, rape, it’s just absolutely horrific. The children come to us psychologically abused and we give them counselling whenever they need.”

It is a hard balance to strike, to know exactly what the right thing is to do. Do we close down all orphanages because they have long-term effects on children? Or do we keep the minority open who are doing the best they can, without exploiting families, to save kids in dire situations?

Child exploitation expert Van Doore says institutions should cease to exist, but they cannot close overnight. Instead, she says children should be homed with extended family or with foster parents.

“It would take between three and five years to close any orphanage responsibly,” she says. “Where orphanages do close overnight, it’s dangerous for the kids. They end up in another orphanage or worse, in bonded labour or are sexually exploited because safeguards haven’t been put in place.”

She explains that it is vital to listen to children and allow them to be a part of the decision-making process when re-homing, as the choices will ultimately impact their lives.

At Nakuru Hope, Saleeba ensures the children have a say. She speaks of a girl whom she’s looked after for a number of years. The girl was asked; “If you could change anything, what would you change?”, to which she replied, “my past before I came here.”

“With us now, she has family,” Saleeba says. “She’s now got brothers and sisters. She’s now got love. We’ve got kids now that are 18. We no longer legally have any hold on them. Do you think they’re off? Do you think they’re leaving us? No. Because we’re a family.”

The Nakuru Hope learning centre offers education to nearly 300 children from the slums in Nairobi, ranging from the age of three until 10. The children in the orphanage are also provided schooling, with 20 of the children who started at the learning centre now in high school. Five have progressed to university.

“Our kids had absolutely nothing,” Saleeba says. “They had been abandoned. Abandonment doesn’t just mean by a parent, but by a family, by a tribe. They now have every chance in the world of having a future, that is just as bright or has the potential to be just as bright as one of our children [in Australia]. If they didn’t start with us, most wouldn’t even have a chance to survive childhood.”

So, how can we find a balance between ethically supporting vulnerable children, without supporting corrupt organisations?

Co-founder of Responsible Volunteering Daniel Großbröhmer says it is important to understand there is a lot of potential for volunteering.

“It’s not about [volunteers] actively participating and rescuing the world,” he says. “It should be about them understanding the situation and complex concept of the NGO or the host country.”

Großbröhmer says when deciding where to volunteer, it is important to look at the organisation’s homepage and the information that is provided, to ensure their focus is on the work they are doing as an NGO. 

“If they are focussing on the experience and the offer that is given to the volunteer, that’s an alarming sign,” he says. 

At Nakuru Hope, a small number of volunteers visit each year. Background checks are done and motives are questioned. Throughout the year, Saleeba and her volunteers go out into the slums to ensure the community members are living in the best standards possible. 

“We have an ethos of being family-orientated,” Saleeba says. “All the children that come to the school are family, and so are their parents and siblings. We’ll go to their home or their dwelling and we’ll make sure they have food to eat, or that they have a roof over their head. We’ll build houses. We’ll fetch water. So many women are having their babies in their dwellings behind closed doors – we will help them go to the hospital and take their children to the hospital.”

Saleeba also supports the community through various other ways. All of the clothes, supplies and furniture for the school and orphanage are bought from local markets. All of the staff are hired from within the community. Saleeba says the list of work they do within the community is endless.

When it comes to volunteering with vulnerable people, there is no easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Stopping volunteer tourism visits to orphanages will result in a decrease in the number of orphanages worldwide, and may ultimately protect those who are vulnerable. But stopping volunteer tourism visits to vulnerable communities and organisations who are genuinely doing the right thing, will mean people who need help and are without hope will continue on a downhill spiral. In places such as sub-Saharan Africa, the number of orphans is on the incline. If these children were not granted by the courts to be under the protection of people who genuinely care, they may be living on the streets and subject to abuse such as rape and trafficking.

“We give them hope,” Saleeba says. “And maybe even more than that. They have a start, they have a foundation.”