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Cambodia: Exploiting Children for Volunteers

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

Chan, a nine-year-old, was forced to sing and dance for volunteers who visited her orphanage. She, along with the other children who called the institution home, were so hungry that they would search for rats in the streets in order to survive. Leaders would emotionally, physically and sexually abuse Chan and her friends. Children were forced to work on owners’ land without pay and any donated items given to the children were sold for the organization’s profit.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, Chan is just one of the 16,579 children living in one of Cambodia’s 406 orphanages. Yet, these children are not parentless. Rather, they are victims of a growing for-profit scheme that preys on Westerners’ desire to give back and help the developing world.

Volunteers flock to Cambodia in order to ‘give back.’ Unfortunately, orphanage tourism is at an all-time high, with the number of orphanages in the country increasing by 60% from 2005 to 2015. To make matters worse, half of the country’s orphanages are located in tourist destinations rather than the areas suffering from poverty.

Many participants are visiting the scenic area when they decide to ‘give back’ to the community. These voluntourists rarely bring experience, just the desire to help. Harmful organizations prey on tourists’ desire to help, no matter the cost to the community.

Cambodian children who live in orphanages are rarely without parents. Sometimes the family elects to leave their children in these institutions with the promise of a better life. It’s often assumed that the foreign volunteers will be providing education to the children--something poorer communities do not have access to. Sadly, recruitment isn’t the only way children are brought into these schemes. In some cases, children are stolen from their families.

Yet, with most organizations requiring only a program fee and not specialized skills, the actual value for the children is hard to see. In fact, most of the orphanages in Cambodia are for-profit. Children are seen as a commodity to generate income for program directors. Organizations have largely become a business because the Cambodian government is incapable of funding orphanages, so those that are legitimate must “fend for themselves.” Children are then treated poorly in order to keep up the appearance that they need help from voluntourists.

Cambodia is one of the most visited voluntourist destinations. When choosing an organization, it is imperative that participants are critical and ask the right questions. Cambodia’s orphans have been called modern day slaves. Australia has taken legal action in an effort to end their compliance with orphan tourism.

For most volunteers, it is not a matter of wanting to do good. But in order to do so, they have to do their due diligence, which involves analyzing the organization’s past efforts and determining who is truly benefiting from the trips.

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“It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.” -Ivan

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