In 2001, the famous Hollywood actress, Angelina Jolie, visited Cambodia whilst she was featuring in her latest box-office film, Tomb Raider. Whilst in Cambodia, Angelina fell in love with a seven month old baby. A year later, Angelina returned and officially adopted a baby named Maddox. Angelina has since admitted that she had no desire to have children before meeting Maddox, and meeting with the children at a school in Cambodia. Angelina is now a mother of six, with three of her children having been adopted.
Children can be innocent, spontaneous, funny and joyful, all whilst flaunting a cheerful face – characteristics which attract our affection and empathy. However, in recent years, this empathy towards children has been capitalised on in order to create revenue. Foreign tourists and volunteers have been the targets of this trap.
We cannot ignore the influence that tourism has had over the social life of Cambodian people, especially children. One obvious example that has taken place in Cambodia, is the development of a new branch of tourism- orphanage tours. Essentially, orphanage tourism involves visiting an orphanage for several hours as part of a scheduled tour, coupled with various activities (Eimer 2013).
This example demonstrates how orphans have been commoditized for the purpose of increasing the income of various individuals. Orphanage tourism now serves as an example of how tourism can be poorly administrated, as orphans are taken advantage of, and used as bait to attract tourists who will likely contribute donations. Orphanage tourism attempts to project children as fragile, innocent and adorable beings, who seek the love (and donations) from first world tourists. (Reas, 2013)
In Cambodia, tourists are approached to visit orphanages, and offer donations to the children in the orphanages. However, these donations are often misused by inscrupulous managers who are instead utilising orphanage tourism in order to increase their own incomes. Orphanages that should operate to provide orphans with a place to live, access to health services and education, are instead using orphans to attract donations from tourists. As this has become the primary purpose of these orphanages, many orphans are not recieving the necessary care, health and education services that should be provided to them. In many ways, denying children these services is a deliberate decision – the sicker children look, the more money tourists are likely to donate.
Tourism in Cambodia has thus allowed certain individuals and organizations to profit off of children. Furthermore, this kind of tourism is rapidly growing in Indonesia. In 2005, Cambodia gained 1, 421, 651 foreign tourists, and this number continued to rise to 2, 508, 289 in 2010 (Tourism Statistics Report, 2016). Data collected by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Veterans and Rehabilitation of Cambodian Youth, shows that there has been an increase in the number of orphanages in Cambodia by 75 percent – from 154 in 2005, to 269 in 2010 (UNICEF 2011). In addition, not all of these orphans are listed on MoSVY. Allegedly, many orphanages are not legally registered, in which case the number of orphans is realistically higher. Essentially, as tourism grows, the number of orphans is also growing.
In addition, many of the children now residing in orphanages were deliberately placed there, despite the fact that most of them still have parents. MoSVY data shows that 44 percent of the children cared for at the orphanages were brought there by their own parents and relatives. In Cambodia, it has been discovered that 30.1 percent of people live below the poverty line (World Bank, 2009). It has been suggested that the high level of poverty is the primary reason orphans are sent to these establishments, regardless of their authenticity.
Attempt to Eradicate Orphanage Tourism
Angkor Wat, one of the largest historic archeological sites in Southeast Asia, is one of Cambodia’s primary tourist attractions, and as such, has also become an ideal location to attract tourists into the orphanage trap. Conveniently, Angkor Wat is also located in Siem Reap, a slum area, and one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia. The administrators of these establishments create tourist orphanage tours in order to generate income and raise the standard of their own lives.
In order to prevent the increasingly widespread orphanage tourism, it is crucial to prevent acts of exploitation. Children who are deliberately exploited due to orphanage tourism are likely to experience poor mental development. In addition, an inability to access education is detrimental to their future, and will make it increasingly difficult for them to break the poverty cycle. Furthermore, the lack of access to essential health services is detrimental to the children’s well being and health outcomes.
The current situation in Cambodia is not only concerning due to the abandonment of children, but is a more complicated humanitarian crisis. Orphanage tourism can be linked to other issues such as child trafficking, child prostitution, in addition to a myriad of other issues. Thus, the Cambodian government has attempted to prevent orphanage tourism by establishing a series of policies.
In 2006, the Cambodian Government issued an Alternative Care for Children Policy, with the intention of ensuring that children can live with their families in a supportive environment. The policy also promotes the principle that institutions such as orphanages should be the last option, and a temporary solution. In addition to this regulation, in 2006 and 2008, the Government has also set standards for childcare facilities for children in Cambodia. In 2009, the implementation of the Alternative Care for Children Policy, was further strengthened by the establishment of a child welfare system in Cambodia. Initially, this project was expected to make it more difficult to obtain a permit to establish an orphanage, so to prevent the development of orphanage tourism. However, the implementation of these policies has not always been easy, and there are still many cases of orphanage tourism in Cambodian society today.
The issue of implementing and regulating the aforementioned policies, is compounded by the increased demand of such facilities by a large number of tourists, donors, and volunteers, who do not realize that orphanage tourism in Cambodia is resulting in more harm than good. Due to this, a number of non-profit organizations, in addition to the government, have promoted and campaigned against orphanage tourism, and in doing so have attempted to raise awareness of the dangers of orphanage tourism. An example of such organizations includes the thinkchildsafe.org and orphanages.no, who share a vision to prevent orphanage tourism in Cambodia.
Lock in the Hand of a Tourist
In order to resolve this issue, the Cambodian Government will also be required to eradicate poverty through long-term investment in quality education and healthcare access for children. In addition, as the primary funders of orphanage tourism in Cambodia, tourists have an important role to play through halting donating to these institutions. Fortunately, the aforementioned movements have been raising awareness of orphanage tourism, so donations have started to decrease.
In order to prevent further donations, tourists must see this issue from the broader perspective, and recognize that giving donations to these children is not improving their welfare. Providing funding to these institutions is often reinforcing the cycle of poverty.
Travellers should also avoid giving donations to orphanages that are not reputable. Despite good intentions, giving donations to such institutions will only lead to detrimental outcomes, as it encourages the use of children for the objective of profit generation. If donations can not be avoided, they should be facilitated through a reputable, legal instituion, so that funds can be distributed appropriately and effectively.
As members of Southeast Asian society, we must not remain silent about the orphanage tourism phenomenon, especially considering that 40% of the tourists visiting Cambodia originate from ASEAN countries. It is vital that we all play a role in building a more positive environment for children, and advocate responsible tourism.
Website Orphanage Tourism:
This article was written by Riza Rafigani (in Indonesian), a student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, while working as an intern at Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies (CESASS).