TOURISM IMPACT ON ORPHANAGES IN CAMBODIA
Understanding orphanages in Cambodia, and why to never visit them.
The reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1974 to 1979 killed almost a quarter of the population and left many of Cambodia’s children displaced and/or orphaned. The need for orphanages to provide a home for children without families during the post-Khmer Rouge era was real. Today, however, UNICEF reports that the number of orphaned children has decreased, and though the government continues to run 23 orphanages, the number of NGO-run residential homes for young children grew from 154 in 2005 to around 225 in 2013. Why? A combination of widespread poverty and the lucrative business that orphanages represent due to their capacity to attract foreign visitors, volunteers and overseas funding.
Well-intentioned support and donations from those who think they are helping vulnerable children without families, is in fact having the opposite effect in Cambodia, just as in other parts of the world.
NEVER AGREE TO VISIT ORPHANAGES IN CAMBODIA
Many travel agencies and hotels include in their sightseeing tours visits to local orphanages in Cambodia. Tour operators sell these journeys as charitable activities. According to UNICEF, Save the Children, and Friends International there is a rising number of private residential care centers due to increases in the attractiveness of destinations such as Siem Reap. Orphanages have been very lucrative and led to an increase of a large number of institutions unnecessarily. Inadvertently and unwillingly, visitors are involved in the orphan business. Children living in or studying in schools, or orphanages shouldn’t be presented as tourist attraction.
INSTITUTIONS ARE NOT – EVER – A BETTER ENVIRONMENT FOR CHILDREN THAN A LOVING FAMILY
Over 75% of Cambodian children living in orphanages have a living parent, and an even higher percentage have close family members, like grandparents, who are alive. Poor families often believe – or are convinced – that sending their child to live in a residential care home will provide them a better start in life as they will receive an education, nutrition and healthcare. However, research highlights that the institutionalisation of children can cause significant and irreversible damage.
There is strong scientific evidence that living in residential care impairs the healthy development of a child’s brain, and harms their ability to form meaningful relationships, socialise effectively and function independently upon leaving residential care. What is more, within many NGO-run orphanages in Cambodia, child protection and care is often weak at best. At worst, it is non-existent and children face a very real risk of neglect, abuse and exploitation.
Be aware as well, if you apply for volunteering in Cambodia to be a teacher, or for helping children, you might feel useful by helping them and show affection to them. On the contrary, it can be very harmful more than helpful for the children. Please read our section on Volunteering in Cambodia.
SO HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Whilst donations and visits to orphanages are strongly discouraged, you can certainly still help by supporting organisations that run family- and community-based social care programmes, or work towards the reintegration of children from residential to community care. To find out more, go to www.childsafeinternational.org.