Child Protection Experts Concerned about Orphan Tourism in Cambodia

28/07/2011 - A child protection expert from UNICEF, as well as local charities, have raised concern about the impact of "orphan tourism" on the emotional well-being of vulnerable, orphaned children in Cambodia.

An activity common among young, Western do-gooders has sparked concern among child protection experts in Cambodia.

Volunteers who come to spend some time caring for Cambodian orphans may in fact be doing more bad than good, experts fear. This is particularly true when it comes to short-term volunteers who fly in to teach English or work in orphanages before moving on to the next part of their travels.

This sort of travel/volunteering combination can put some of society’s most vulnerable children at a higher emotional risk.

“Constant change of caregivers gives emotional loss to children, constant emotional loss to already traumatised children,” said Jolanda van Westering to the AFP. Ms. Van Westering is a Child Protection Specialist with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

On a darker note, the constant flow of strangers can pose further risks of abuse to the children. This is because, “oftentimes volunteers come to an orphanage without having their backgrounds checked,” warned Ms. Van Westering.

Nevertheless, the needs of Cambodia’s youngest and most vulnerable continue to grow. As of 2009, Cambodia was believed to be home to 630,000 orphans. The number of children living in the country’s 269 orphanages is 12,000 – double the number of orphanages, as compared to six years ago, notes UNICEF.

A negative feedback cycle exists between tourism and the institutionalization of children. According to Friends International, orphanages have become a tourist attraction among global volunteers, causing the number of institutionalized children to increase, despite the fact that many of these impoverished and institutionalized children have at least one parent living.

Last month, it was reported that one-third of Cambodian children live beneath the poverty line, according to UNICEF data. Within the South East Asian region, Cambodia has the highest infant and child mortality rates. The country has an infant mortality rate of 68 deaths per 1,000 live births and a child mortality rate of 88 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are particularly susceptible to this feedback loop, that makes orphanages a source of tourism revenue.

Only about a tenth of the country’s orphanages are state-funded. The rest rely on the help of charities and non-governmental organizations.

So, where does this leave this generation’s would-be cohort of “do-gooders” abroad?

UNICEF’s Ms. Van Westering has the following advice: “Don’t go. Give blood, support a community-based organisation that provides day activities for a child but where the children go home at night.”