The number of orphanages in Cambodia has nearly doubled since 2007, yet the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that there are now fewer orphans in Cambodia than ever before. The reason for this discrepancy? Orphanage tourism.
Volunteering at a local orphanage has become a bucket-list item for many tourists and the preferred feel-good end to a trip full of festivals, massages, cooking classes, and guided tours. Regardless of skill-sets or language barriers, most orphanages throw open their doors to well-meaning travelers, but for a price.
UNICEF’s statistics show that of the estimated 12,000 children living in Cambodian orphanages today, only 28 percent have lost both their parents. Most of the children in these establishments are serving as — for lack of a kinder expression — tourist attractions.
The inflation of orphanages has come an explosive 250 percent increase of travelers into the country.
Parents who cannot afford to feed or educate their children have started sending them to one of the newly sprung-up orphanages in the hopes that they will find a better life through the pocket change of tourists. But while a few orphanages deliver on their promises to desperate parents that their children will be educated, most do not.
Tuk tuk drivers are often commissioned by orphanages to deliver optimistic tourists, and again by market vendors if the tourists are brought to them first to purchase school supplies.
Smart travelers are able to find the few genuine orphanages, but it takes determination, and a willingness to accept their own limitations; trained child workers and long-standing volunteers are almost always more qualified to care for orphans, and the quick turn-around time of visitors often just deepens a child’s feelings of abandonment.
It’s common for unwieldy volunteers to pamper their own conscience more than those they are aiming to help, because while this sometimes leads to a life of humanitarian work, most times it just leads to cool Facebook pictures. Travelers wishing to spend some of their vacation doing volunteer work must be careful to put their money in the hands of people with similar motives.
– Lydia Caswell