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The link between voluntourism, orphanage tourism and child sexual exploitation 

Posted on Aug 26, 2019

There is growing recognition of the harms of voluntourism and orphanage tourism for children. The rising popularity of this trend to ‘give back’ has resulted in the unnecessary separation of children from their families and reinforced a negative stereotype that communities and families in ‘developing’ countries need ‘saving’.

However, less attention is paid to the link to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. Sexual exploitation of children in residential care is on the rise and it is increasingly at the hands of foreigners and volunteers.

What is the problem?

There are many different factors that contribute to this problem, and what drives the sexual exploitation is complex. However, it is clear that voluntourism and orphanage tourism is facilitating opportunities for travelling child sex offenders to directly access vulnerable children as well as eroding protective factors that keep children safe.

The number of children without parents are declining, yet, orphanages have continued to rise.

Despite the declining number of children who do not have parents, the number of orphanages continues to rise, matching the popularity of voluntourism. For example, from 2005 to 2010 the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 75%, with the majority being located in tourist areas.

Orphanage trafficking

Voluntourism and orphanage tourism is ultimately a business. Travellers and volunteers are willing to pay large amounts for orphanage experiences – and child traffickers have figured this out. In some cases, it is so profitable that children are actively recruited into orphanages to meet the demand of tourists and donors, an emerging issue now defined as ‘orphanage trafficking’.

Children are actively recruited into orphanages to meet the demand of tourists and donors.

Parents and caregivers who give up their children are promised better education and healthcare for their child, but in reality, their children end up commodified and kept in poor conditions to attract more funding and continue the cycle of exploitation.

What do orphanages have to do with sexual abuse and exploitation?

To meet demand and maximize profit, many voluntourism placements lack background checks, child protection policies and appropriate training for volunteers. This allows them to take on more and more volunteers, some even have an ‘open door’ policy. This allows un-vetted and unqualified people to access to vulnerable children.

For a travelling child sex offender, this is the perfect opportunity to make contact with children and commit their crimes with a sense of impunity and anonymity. Perceived as more knowledgeable and powerful in their ‘helping’ role, offenders are then able to easily manipulate and bribe victims, families and communities into silence.

Children in orphanages more vulnerable

However, the risk for sexual exploitation isn’t just the result of allowing volunteers direct access to children. Children in residential care are already at a higher risk of abuse and exploitation due to the negative impacts these environments have on their emotional and mental wellbeing and development. In some cases, it has been estimated to quadruple the risk of sexual violence.

The constant rotation of volunteers and carers throughout these children’s lives makes it difficult for them to recognize and form healthy relationships in the future and normalizes interactions with strangers who do not always have their best intentions in mind.

Orphanages are not the only place where voluntourism increases the risk for sexual exploitation of children. Daycare centres, schools, homework clubs and homestays are all environments where unqualified and un-vetted volunteers and visitors come and go, and where an imbalance of power and lack of regulation means that children and families are easily taken advantage of.

Evidence from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in the United Kingdom found that one in five offenders of child sexual abuse was in a role that gave them direct access to children abroad (cases charged in the UK between 2006 and 2011).

What can we do about it?

  • Do not volunteer and/or fund orphanages
    Travel and tourism companies, school groups, faith-based organizations and travellers, must refrain from visiting, volunteering in, or funding orphanages. Until this happens, children will continue to be commodified and separated from their families for the profit of others.
  • Redirect your support
    Those that are already engaged with orphanages should begin an ethical and sustainable divestment strategy to redirect support to promote family and community based-care alternatives, or programs that promote the long term best interests of the child.

Money can be better spent: placing a child in residential care is four times more expensive than family-based care alternatives.

  • Use your consumer power!
    Every dollar spent impacts the world around us. Volunteers and travellers can use their consumer power to choose ethical and responsible companies that are committed to safeguarding children and do not offer orphanage tourism. This includes choosing members of The Code who commit to protecting children from sexual exploitation in travel and tourism.Do your research, get informed and remember – if you can’t do it at home, then you shouldn’t do it abroad. The only people who should be making contact with vulnerable children are trained professionals who have a strong understanding of child rights and knowledge of their local culture.

If you can’t do it at home, then you shouldn’t do it abroad.

Governments are taking action

Important progress to address orphanage tourism and voluntourism have been made by several countries. At the end of 2018 Australia become the first nation to recognize ‘orphanage trafficking’ as a form of modern slavery and in March, a Dutch Parliamentary Roundtable was held to debate the issue of orphanage tourism with research promised into the scope of the issue and possible responses.In the UK, evidence was given into a review of the Modern Slavery Act urging the UK to do more to address its role in perpetuating the orphanage tourism ‘industry’ with a recommendation made for better policy guidance to address this issue. However, urgent action is required to protect children from sexual exploitation now.


Bronwen Maher
Programmes Intern – Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism