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How voluntourism may facilitate the sexual exploitation of children

What can be done to protect children?

Read our New Issues Paper Here

As the travel and tourism industry rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting children must be at the forefront of all of our minds. The solution—some forms of voluntourism must be regulated in order to keep children safe. 

vol·un·tour·ism

/ˌvälənˈto͝orizəm/

noun

VOLUNTOURISM: is defined as organised and packaged tourist trips with a duration of a few hours to a year, in which the main purpose is to volunteer. The volunteer provides their ‘work’ within the destination free of charge. While the concept of ‘voluntourism’ generally includes an element of international travel, similar risks to children also apply in the context of domestic and local travel and tourism, when a person is allowed to volunteer with and for children in an organisation or an orphanage without previous background checks (also when such activities may not be organised by a company). [1]

While volunteering is a valuable way to contribute to society, that offers benefits to both the community and the volunteer, packaged and unsupervised voluntourism trips and visits have been shown to have a range of harmful consequences on children’s development and can increase the risk of child sexual exploitation. Voluntourism allows for unregulated access to vulnerable children. Offenders can take advantage of these settings to access and sexually exploit children from orphanages, schools, clubs and other settings where unregulated volunteering opportunities are offered.  

Child safeguarding practices are neither regulated, standard practice, nor are they understood.

Some volunteersending organisations, and even some governments, have implemented safeguarding regulations for aspiring volunteers – such as criminal record checks, interviews, referee checks and physical, and environmental standards for working with children. But many volunteerreceiving organisations and countries do not uphold the same necessary measures to ensure that children are kept safe. The discrepancy means  that the good practices and standards upheld at one end can be easily undone in the other side, making countries with no mandated safeguarding regulations easy targets for offenders. 

Economic push factors have been exacerbated by the pandemic. More families in the developing world are facing extreme poverty. Some children have sometimes lost caregivers to COVID-19. The pandemic put a pause on the bulk of international tourism. During this period, research recorded positive effects on children’s wellbeing from fewer shortterm travelling volunteers in residential care facilities.1  Yet many facilities intend to resume orphanage volunteering postpandemic due to the funding benefits they bring. 

Voluntourism allows for unregulated access to vulnerable children. Offenders can take advantage of these settings to access and sexually exploit children from orphanages, schools, clubs and other settings where unregulated volunteering opportunities are offered.

What can be done? 

Our global desk review outlines a number of solutions for governments, the private sector, and tourists to protect children from sexual exploitation. 

Implementing and enforcing legislative solutions  

In 2021, ECPAT International published detailed analysis of legal and policy interventions to protect children from sexual exploitation in the context of travel and tourism, with a specific focus on the issue of unsupervised and unregulated voluntourism. [2][3] Key legal and policy solutions include: 

  • Child protection standards for the travel and tourism industry 
  • Criminal record checks as strict requirements for working in direct contact with children 
  • National mechanisms for centrally registering sex offenders 
  • Regulating and monitoring volunteers in any settings and activities that involve direct contact with children (particularly prohibiting visits to orphanages/residential care settings in favour of redirecting the industry towards solutions that support community-based care). 

An Example of Good Practice – The Philippines 

The government of the Philippines has created the National Volunteer Services Coordinating Agency, an agency that maintains a centralised registry of the identity of all domestic volunteers and is mandated to work with government institutions and other stakeholders under the National Volunteer Service Program. In 2007, a Foreign Volunteer Program Deployment Framework was developed which acts as a guide for the deployment of foreign volunteers in the Philippines to meet key development priorities. The agency works with approved foreign partners that have internal measures for the effective recruitment and screening of volunteers. 

How can we increase regulation and safeguarding measures?

Globally, government efforts at regulating voluntourism are limited. Some governments require tourism operators to meet minimum child protection standards, however these are not specifically related to voluntourism. Our proposed solutions to this gap in protecting children include: 

  • Standardised child safeguarding practices, including criminal record checks. All organisations working with children should be required to meet minimum standards for safeguarding children. Governments should implement mandatory criminal record checks for any position that has contact with children, regardless of whether the individual is national or international, employed or voluntary.
  • Regulation to counter orphanage trafficking and modern slavery. This can be achieved through awareness raising, funding stream reforms, support for divestment and transition, mechanisms to register organisations operating orphanages, and the introduction of offences specifically relating to orphanage trafficking.  
  • Visas and immigration law can be used to regulate voluntourism. Immigration procedures could be adapted by using mandatory declaration systems at the border to explore whether travellers intend to undertake volunteering involving contact with children. Those indicating yes could then be screened with criminal record checks, including using the INTEPROL Green Notice system. 

How can we raise awareness and promote responsible tourism?

Both volunteer-sending and –receiving countries must raise awareness about the damage that unregulated voluntourism activities can represent.

  • Public awareness, advocacy and education. Guidance can be provided in volunteer-sending countries for tourists wanting to volunteer with children overseas. A good example is the ReThink Orphanages movement in Australia. Volunteer-receiving countries must promote awareness and reporting mechanisms and address the risks of harm to children from sexual exploitation in all forms of voluntourism.
  • Responsible and sustainable tourism. Unregulated voluntourism experiences pose threats and can harm children’s development. Voluntourism that involves direct contact with children must stop. Tourism businesses must stop offering visits to orphanages and residential care facilities. All other voluntourism packages and opportunities must adhere to child protection standards.

Read the Issues Paper Now

Voluntourism Issues Paper

Available: English, Spanish, Portuguese

Detailed Legal Analysis Table (Annex)

Available: English, Spanish, Portuguese

  1. The Code. (2021). Voluntourism Policy.

  2. Assessment Matrix.
  3. Legal Checklist: Key Legal Interventions to Protect Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism available at https://ecpat.org/countries/ for Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, Peru, Kenya, Uganda, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

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