Children playing on a swing

Considering a visit to an orphanage abroad? The problems with visiting orphanages

Are you planning a holiday to a country such as Cambodia, Nepal, Kenya or Guatemala? While you’re there, as well as having the chance to visit incredible places such as Angkor Wat, Kathmandu, or the Masai Mara, you may also find that you get the opportunity to visit an orphanage. Although this might seem like a great thing to do, it actually does a lot of harm to the children involved and should always be avoided!

Whether a tourist, a long term traveller, a missionary or even a business person on a work trip, in countries across Asia, South America and Africa it is very common to be presented with the chance to participate in an orphanage visit. This may be something you plan before arriving in the country either independently or via your tour operator, or it could be more spontaneous after seeing the visit advertised by your hostel or hotel, or promoted by your taxi or tuk-tuk driver. But remember, more often than not, those who promote visits to orphanages are being paid to do so.

Orphanage tourism as it is known refers to the practice of tourists volunteering in or visiting orphanages during a vacation overseas. These orphanage visits could span anything from an hour to a few days.

TOP 5 reasons why visiting orphanages harms children

Here are the top 5 reasons why visiting orphanages in Cambodia, Nepal and other countries across the developing world cause harm to children.

1. Orphanages are not what you think they are

When we think of orphanages we think of places where highly vulnerable children are living after the death of both their parents. However, research conducted by UNICEF and other child rights experts has found that approximately 80% of the 8 million children currently living in orphanages have one or both living parents. 

Children across the world are growing up in orphanages due to poverty. Their parents and families believe or are told that their child will be afforded a better start in life if they move to an institution where they can access education and healthcare. Sadly, the vast majority of the time this just isn’t true. 

Decades of research show that growing up in an institution causes long-term damage to a child’s development and well-being. It’s why we no longer have them in countries such as the UK, USA and Australia. Find out more about how growing up in an institution can be harmful to a child.

2. Visiting orphanages creates more ‘orphans’

Many orphanages across the world operate as businesses and are completely unregistered with local authorities. They rely on the good intentions of tourists, volunteers and sponsors in order to run. The more Westerners who want to volunteer and visit orphanages and orphans, the greater the demand for these scam institutions to exist. There simply aren’t enough orphans in the world to meet the demand and so children are taken from their families and moved into institutions to fill the gaps. In some of the worst cases children are loaned, bought and sold between orphanages like pieces of furniture. A major way to prevent children from being needlessly separated from their families is to stop the demand for ‘orphans’ by not visiting or volunteering in orphanages.

3. Orphanage visits are highly disruptive for the children

One of the reasons why tourists want to visit an orphanage is because they believe the children are in need of extra love and attention due to the loss or trauma they have already suffered. It is true that growing up in an orphanage often means children do not receive the individualised attention and care that they need. However, this simply cannot be replaced by volunteers or tourists who often only stay for a few hours. Children in orphanages experience an almost constant cycle of love and then neglect, due to well-intentioned tourists and volunteers coming and going, which has extremely damaging consequences on their ability to form healthy, happy and trusting relationships as they grow up.

4. Orphanage visits expose children to abuse

Orphanage tourism is an extremely unregulated industry, which means that anyone can gain access to children - regardless of their intentions. Although you only want good things for children, sadly others see this as the perfect opportunity to have unvetted access, often completely alone, to a vulnerable child. The only way to prevent child sexual abuse like this is to stop the practice of day trips and volunteer projects in orphanages. 

5. Children are not tourist attractions

Ever wondered why there are substantially more orphanages near popular tourist hotspots, such as Siem Reap in Cambodia, Kathmandu in Nepal, or Accra in Ghana? Children have become a tourist commodity, something to be ‘experienced’ whilst travelling overseas. They earn a lot of money for orphanage owners and in the worst cases, are malnourished and exploited in order to increase donations. Some children are forced to put on dance or cultural shows all day for unsuspecting tourists. You would never dream of taking a day trip to visit vulnerable children in social care facilities in your own country, so why is it any different if the children are growing up abroad? Check out this campaign by the ChildSafe Movement to find out more.

 Beware other names for orphanages

Not all orphanages go by that name. In fact, as Western audiences are becoming more savvy to the harms which orphanages can cause children, some institutions are changing their names in order to continue operation. Whilst on your travels, you may see orphanages referred to as:

  • Children’s homes
  • Shelters
  • Safe houses
  • Children’s villages
  • Transitional homes
  • Boarding schools
  • Residential care institutions

It’s important to remember that if you visit an institution where a group of unrelated children are living together and receiving care from paid staff members in the form of shelter, food, clothing and sometimes education, the harms to children are the same!

If visiting an orphanage is wrong, why do so many tour operators still offer it?

In short, because it is still popular and so leads to more business. There is also a lot of misunderstanding around the harms caused by visits to orphanages, as well as longer term volunteering projects. Lots of tourism operators - like individual tourists - believe they are doing the right thing by supporting orphanages. It is only through increased dialogue that we can change this practice for the better. 

Lots of tourism and volunteering operators are increasingly recognising the problems with visiting orphanages. Many have never run these sort of trips, and a growing number are removing them from their websites. 

It’s important to remember that just because your tour operator offers an orphanage visit or trip as part of its package, it does not make it ethical. Why not contact them about what you’ve read here? We’d be very happy to talk to them further.

What else can I do to support children in the countries I visit?

We’re definitely not saying don’t support children abroad. What we’re saying is support children in the right ways! Here’s some suggestions of alternatives ways you may wish to support:

1. Tell your friends and colleagues about what you have discovered about supporting orphanages. The only way we’re going to see this practice stopped is if more and more people change their behaviour. 

2. Donate to programmes which keep children and their families together.

3. Support ethical businesses where you’re travelling. When you know where you’re going, do some research to find out about local social enterprises that pay their workers fairly and offer some benefit to the community. Remember, if parents can afford to care for their children they won’t be as likely to be placed in an orphanage.

4. Vote with your wallet and avoid giving your support to organisations who run or promote orphanage volunteering, visits or day trips. If the demand isn’t there children will not be unnecessarily separated from their families.

5. Do not give to children who are begging on the streets or buy souvenirs offered by them! Doing so only keeps them on the streets for longer.

Join us in building a better alternative for children and help families stay together. Find out more and get involved.