The scandal of orphanages in tourist resorts and disaster zones that rent children to fleece gullible Westerners

Published in The Mail on Sunday (April 10th, 2011)

As a child welfare expert who has worked amid bullets and bombs in some of the world’s toughest war zones, Jennifer Morgan is not someone easily shaken. But even she admits she was shocked by some of the orphanages she visited recently in Haiti.

‘Outside it is a sunny day. Then you step inside the walls of an orphanage and realise that the children there have been exposed to rapes, severe beatings, emotional and mental trauma,’ she said. It was even more disturbing, she added, than the damaged children she came across amid the deadly mayhem of Darfur.

But perhaps the most troubling thing is that these tragic scenes in Haiti are not unusual. In dozens of places around the world, unregulated orphanages have become a boom business trading off Western guilt. Our desire to help is backfiring in the most dreadful fashion.

Morgan, whose job is to reunite children with their families, was even screamed at one day by the director of an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. ‘Stop reuniting children with their families,’ he shouted. ‘You’re destroying my business.’

We need to wake up to the emergence of this vile industry. In tourist hotspots and disaster zones from Asia to Latin America, children are being abused and exploited to raise money from well-meaning aid groups, volunteers and holidaymakers.

Westerners seek to help abandoned children but have ended up creating a grotesque market that capitalises on their concerns. Misguided pity is piling on misery, creating and fuelling an industry that separates children from families and drives many into slave labour, sexual abuse and terrible trauma.

Now the Cambodian government has announced an inquiry into the country’s orphanages after the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) voiced concerns. The number of orphanages has nearly doubled in five years, as has the number of children in care – yet almost three-quarters of them have at least one living parent.

I first became aware of the issue travelling around Africa and Asia. Going into schools and orphanages made me wonder about unchecked visitors encouraged to mingle with young children.

My concerns crystallised during investigations into ‘voluntourism’, the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet. Insiders admitted that packages including voluntary work in orphanages sold the best, whether to gap-year teenagers or middle-aged professionals with a romantic desire to do good during their holidays.

The increasing number of orphanages matches rising levels of tourism. Many are clustered in the most popular destinations, with holidaymakers bombarded by offers to visit privately-run centres and donate time or money.

With a population of less than 100,000, the town of Siem Reap, gateway to the famous ruins of Angkor Wat, has 35 orphanages. One even parades children late at night behind placards reading ‘Support Our Orphans’ as visitors drink and dine. Typically, the websites show pictures of happy children. Once inside, visitors are greeted with wide smiles and tales of abandonment. But the children may have been stolen, rented from their parents or tricked from impoverished rural villagers with false promises of wealth, education and healthcare.

Some orphanages are fronts for child labour and sexual abuse – the British owner of one orphanage in Siem Reap was jailed earlier this year for assaulting several children in his care. Others are kept deliberately squalid, the children starved to look more needy. Little wonder Unicef says it wants to see most shut down.

The same trade that turns children into commodities has sprung up elsewhere.

In Bali, the number of orphanages has doubled in less than a decade, despite two-thirds of the children having parents. Scouts lure cute children from poor families with promises of food and schooling. Some are then forced to work from dawn to dusk on building sites, making jewellery or selling street food. Malnutrition is common.

Brenton Whittaker, founder of local charity Bali Kids, says the worst directors – who live in large houses and educate their own children abroad – sell on all donated goods, even medicines. ‘The conditions are shocking,’ he said. ‘They run these orphanages as a business, spending as little as possible on food, health and education for the kids in order to make the most profits.’

In Sri Lanka, another popular tourist destination, a study found that 92 per cent of children in orphanages had one or both parents living. In Ghana, a government investigation after the rape of an eight-month-old boy in an orphanage found that up to 90 per cent of the 4,500 children in orphanages had at least one parent. Unicef officials said children’s welfare was secondary to profit – and it is estimated that less than a third of income goes on child care.

Not all orphanages in the developing world are bad. There are many excellent centres with dedicated staff. But researchers found that even at the better ones, children are left traumatised by short-term volunteer projects, forming emotional bonds with visitors who then disappear suddenly.

Just as in the West, experts say there should be thorough checks on all visitors and stress that children are nearly always better off with their families. The number of orphanages also soars after disasters. As aid money flows in, images of lost children can be profitable.

There have been big rises after several recent major emergencies, although Save The Children found the number of abandoned children is far lower than imagined. Some ‘orphans’ are even traded for adoption, despite having families.

In Haiti, there were already 600 orphanages before last year’s earthquake, with scores more springing up. The country’s police chief said many are fronts for criminal organisations taking advantage of people left homeless and hungry.

One aid worker saw babies left unsupervised on chairs, in danger of rolling on to the floor. Another official found all the children were painfully thin, so asked the director if they were short of money. The reply was chilling: ‘We have lots of money. But if we keep the children thin, when we send pictures to church groups, they send more money.’

The desire to help needy children is laudable. But good intentions can lead to bad outcomes – as we have seen with foreign aid, so corrosive in so many countries, and the dumping of free goods, which devastates local industries and leads to a dependency culture.

There are times, sadly, when you must be cruel to be kind.

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