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Supporting orphanages may seem like a worthwhile thing to do, but an increasing body of evidence shows that it is harming the very children it tries to help. 

Thousands of people choose to support orphanages across the world each year. This might be through participating in a volunteer program, as a student or whilst on a gap year, going on a mission trip via a church, visiting for a few hours whilst on vacation, giving regular or one off donations as an individual, church member or business employee, or buying souvenirs or attending cultural shows whilst travelling. Collectively, this type of support has become known as orphanage tourism. 

What is orphanage tourism? 

Orphanage tourism describes the practice of people (usually from the West) volunteering in or visiting an orphanage whilst abroad. It can refer to any visit, from volunteering placements lasting a few months or more, to mission trips, university field trips and visits to watch dance or cultural shows which may last only an hour. It also includes visits which businesses or churches may organise to orphanages that they donate to or sponsor throughout the year.

On the surface, helping orphanages by giving your time or money seems like a thoughtful, charitable thing to do, but what most people don’t realise is that instead of helping vulnerable children they are actually sustaining an industry which is ultimately preventing children from having what they need to develop and ensure their long-term wellbeing: namely, a loving family. 

What is an orphanage? 

The word ‘orphanage’ describes a residential institution where a group of unrelated children live together and receive care from paid staff members in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education. 

Orphanages no longer exist in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia, but do still exist across Africa, Asia, South America and parts of Eastern Europe.

The term ‘orphanage’ itself is quite misleading, as it implies that all children living there are orphans i.e. both their parents have died. However, we know that this isn’t true and that around 80% of children growing up in these types of facilities have one or more living parents.

Other names used to describe an orphanage are: children’s homes, shelters, safe houses, children’s villages, transitional homes and residential care institutions.

Decades of research has proven that growing up in an orphanage is really harmful to a child’s development and well-being. They are all but extinct across Australia, Europe and the US, and over the past ten years great strides have been made to move to a better model of care across the rest of the world too. So why then are nearly 8 million children still growing up in institutions?

Why growing up in an orphanage is harmful to children 

Some of the effects faced by children of growing up in an orphanage are:

  • They are often denied the individual and consistent care that they need to thrive
  • Children who grow up in orphanages are at much higher risk of becoming victims of violence, trafficking and exploitation. 
  • They face a higher risk of homelessness, mental health challenges and suicide. 

What we now know is that the practice of volunteering in or giving money to orphanages is having the reverse effect of what is intended and is actually keeping children in orphanages for longer.

Here’s a breakdown of how orphanage tourism is negatively impacted the children it tries to help:

1. It’s not governments keeping orphanages open

Lots of child protection organisations across the world, like UNICEF and Save the Children, have been working with governments across Africa, Asia and South America, to try and convince them to move away from supporting orphanages. Nearly every government in the world has signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms that every child has the right to grow up in a loving family environment. In fact every country in the world has committed to family-based care.

Despite this, we know that in the past ten years the number of orphanages has increased even though the number of orphan children around the world has decreased. Working with governments, child protection experts have been able to identify that the majority of orphanages worldwide are not actually funded by the state as originally thought, but by external organisations. Money is pouring into the sector via other means, namely through individual donations and paid-for volunteering programs. Although governments have pledged to end orphanage care in the interest of children, this outdated practice continues due in part to the good-intentions of volunteers, tourists, missionaries and donors.

2. Orphanages aren’t what they seem

When we hear the word ‘orphanage’ we assume that the children living there don’t have any relatives able to care for them. In fact, 4 out of 5 of the estimated 8 million children growing up in orphanages across the world today have at least one living parent or a family member who could support them. Many so-called orphanages run like businesses, making money out of unsuspecting visitors from the West who want to do something good for children that they think are in need. Unfortunately, stories of orphanage scams, which take advantage of the goodwill of volunteers, tourists and donors have become all too common.

3. Orphanages are treated as a solution to poverty 

The question remains that if 4 out of 5 children living in orphanages today have family who could care for them, why are they growing up in institutions? The answer is simple: poverty. Unfortunately, some families just cannot meet the cost of supporting their children, and sending them to grow up in residential care is the only way they think they can guarantee them an education and adequate healthcare. The funding being generated for orphanages through international donations and voluntary programs is only preventing money from going to find real solutions to the issue of poverty which are keeping families apart. Read the story of a young Mum from Nepal and how she was faced with an impossible decision to make on behalf of her children. 

4. Orphanage tourism is creating more ‘orphans’

Like any market, if the demand for a product or service increases, so must the supply. As orphanage tourism has grown in popularity the demand for orphanages and orphans has also grown, leading to an increase in the number of orphanages opening worldwide. So where are these children coming from? Put simply, children are often being separated from their families and communities unnecessarily in order to meet this demand. Sometimes due to their well-intentioned parents believing that their child will have a better quality of life if they live in an orphanage, and other times for far more insidious reasons. Orphanage tourism is big business, earning some orphanage owners millions of dollars. In order to ensure they can meet the demand for ‘orphans’, the most corrupt orphanages have been linked to child trafficking rings and have been found to sell and loan children to other institutions. The very desire to volunteer or support children abroad is creating a demand for ‘orphans’ and ‘orphanages’.

5. Orphanages have been linked to modern slavery

Well-intentioned volunteers, donors and tourists are being sold a lie. They believe they are supporting vulnerable children, but are really bolstering an industry which is reaping the rewards from exploiting children as tourist attractions. There are significantly more orphanages near tourist hotspots, especially in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya, where children can be forced to beg, sell souvenirs or perform dance shows (all forms of child labour) in order to illicit money from visitors. In the worst cases, children can be kept in slavery-like conditions, left hungry and sickly, or sold for sex - all for the financial gain of the orphanage owners. Many orphanages across the developing world are unregistered and acting illegally, making them very difficult to police.

There’s a better way to care for children

An orphanage is never the best place for a child to be. Instead of volunteering, visiting or donating to an orphanage, check out other ways to support children below.

1. Find out more about how the following activities are contributing to the rise in orphanages across the world:

2. Shift your support

Don't just stop supporting orphanages directly. Shift your support, whether voluntary or financial, to supporting organisations or programs which work to keep families together instead of separating them. Volunteer with  organisations who don’t offer orphanage volunteering, or upport one of the organistaions that are actively tackling the underlying reasons why children are ending up in orphanages.

3. Spread the word

We need as many people as possible to know about this issue so that we can change the practice of orphanage tourism. Why not share our campaign film on your social media and help us get our message out there?

4. Be conscious of which businesses you support

Avoid organisations who run or promote orphanage volunteering, visits or day trips. When you’re travelling try and support local ethical businesses and social enterprises, which pay their workers fairly and offer some benefit to the community. It’s good to remember that if parents can afford to keep their children they are unlikely to send them to an orphanage. 

5. Don’t volunteer or donate to an orphanage 

Instead, help us build a better alternative for children.

What is deinstitutionalisation and family-based care?

Deinstitutionalisation refers to the process of transforming services to ensure children are able to live with a family in the community. It includes working to prevent family separation in the first instance, by increasing a parent’s access to social services and education for their child. It also ensures appropriate alternatives are in place should a child be unable to remain with their family. Lastly, it focuses on dismantling the current institutional system, which keeps children in orphanages and out of families.

Most children that currently live in orphanages could be reunited with their families who can care for them if given the right support. Children who have lost their parents may be able to return to other relatives like aunts or uncles, or be placed in ‘family-based care’, such as foster or adoptive families. Family-based care refers to an alternative care setting, which closely resembles the family unit. 

Reforming care systems is complex and can’t happen overnight. This means that orphanages cannot be closed immediately and children can only be moved when appropriate alternatives have been found or created.

Read more on family based care and deinstitutionalisation.