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Orphanage regret

Why I regretted my volunteering trip

The year was 2011, and I was a sweaty 16 year old playing construction worker under the Cambodian sun.

I was on a student trip at an orphanage placement. My job? Lug bricks, buckets and stones and run English “classes” for the resident children.

One afternoon a woman and two boys arrived on a motorbike. She slipped into Director’s office to sign some papers. When it was time to go, the bigger boy wrapped his arm around her leg and cried quiet tears.

The boy was her nephew. She worked in the rice fields and couldn’t afford to care for both. She thought at least here he'd get an education. That night he began his new life in the orphanage.

Here’s what I wish I knew before I signed up for an orphanage trip:

  1. Many children in orphanages aren’t actually orphans—often these children have one or more living parents. According to ReThink Orphanages, more than 80% of the eight million children in care have living parents or family.

  2. Some orphanages run for-profit and treat children like merchandise. Orphanage owners have been known to manipulate families to sign over their children by falsely promising them visiting privileges and a better life.

  3. Some orphanages deliberately mistreat children and force them to beg to attract pity and donations.

  4. The constant in-out stream of well-meaning and affectionate strangers can leave children feeling abandoned and traumatised. Children who grow up in orphanages are more likely to experience attachment disorders and developmental delays.

  5. High school students aren’t qualified to be teachers, even if their students live in poverty. (They’re also not qualified to do construction work—and they’re not very good at it either). 

In September, student adventure company World Challenge committed to ending orphanage tripsNew laws could ban Australians from orphanage tourism and redirect donations to support children with families to re-integrate into their communities. I’m glad.

Instead of being condemned to live in an under-resourced, overcrowded orphanage, that kid who wouldn’t let go of his aunt's leg could’ve been supported to live with his family. But the orphanage industry is ripping children from their communities, and trips like mine are fuelling it.

One submission to the 2017 parliamentary enquiry into modern slavery found that more than half Australian universities advertise orphanage trips as part of their overseas programs. Students with good hearts put their trust in schools and universities, oblivious to the insidious orphanage industry.

Cambodia was charming; I recommend you check it out sometime. But skip the orphanage tour and learn the country’s history, explore Angkor Wat, or sign yourself up for a cultural immersion tour instead.

Oaktree’s Ethical Tourism checklist is a useful resource for ensuring your volunteering placement isn’t doing more harm than good. 

Further reading: