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“Children in Orphanages are Not Tourist Attractions”

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Download “Children in orphanages are not tourist Attractions”.

That’s the slogan of a new campaign in Cambodia aiming to put an end to what has become know as “orphanage tourism”.

The campaign run by a local child rights group argues that despite good intentions, tourist visits to orphanages do more harm than good and support an industry that is ineffective and damaging to children’s development.

Heather Stilwell reports from Phnom Penh.


It is early morning along Phnom Penh’s riverside.

A young boy roams from café to café, a case of books strapped on his shoulder to sell to expats and tourists.

He tells them that he needs the money to pay for school.

Executive Director of the child rights group Friends-International, Sebastien Marot, says that tourists must think before buying goods from street-children.

“You have 5,6,7,8,9,10 year olds that will never get an education just because they get money on the street. So, the tourists, Cambodians, Thais, others are maintaining these people where they are.”

Friends-International recently launched a campaign to educate tourists on child-safe tips.

To show that even good-intentioned charity can have negative consequences for the children of Cambodia.

The campaign targets the growing trend of “orphanage tourism.”

For some travelers a visit to the orphanage has become a must-do activity along with a visit to the National Museum or the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

In Phnom Penh, visiting an orphanage like this one can be simple.

Some have an open-door policy and welcome visitors, no questions asked.

A typical tourist visit is quick, just enough time to see the children, take a few pictures, maybe make a donation, and leave.

The international child rights group Friends is against this practice in Cambodia.

Its campaign poster shows an image of children trapped in museum cases, while tourists gawk and take their photographs.

The slogan reads: “Children Are Not Tourist Attractions.”

“The ultimate question we need to ask ourselves is, could we do this in our own country? Would we allow tourists to enter a school, an orphanage in any Western country? No, it’s impossible. So why do we feel it’s allowed in a country like Cambodia? Or others because it happens elsewhere.”

While many tourists simply want to help, Sebastien says they rarely understand the system they are supporting.

A 2009 report by the British charity Save the Children argues that orphanages are not the best option for abandoned children.

The report challenges the belief that all children in orphanages have no parents.

And says governments and donors must shift their focus to family and community-based alternatives.

The Cambodian government has published basic standards of care for child centres, but Sebastien says that many still operate below that level.

“The orphanages usually do not have a strong child protection policy in place, meaning that just anyone can walk through the doors without being checked and start playing with the kids. So there’s no control of who is suddenly interacting with the children. Are they good people? Most of the time yes, but not all the time.”

The group Star Kampuchea, puts travelers in minimum 2-week volunteer placements, mostly at orphanages or schools.

While volunteers do not need professional qualifications to be accepted, the group runs a 2-day orientation program and claims it does a background check.

Raksmey Koy manages the volunteers.

He says, when properly run, the volunteer tourism experience can benefit both tourists and Cambodians.

“We say in our program it’s an intercultural exchange program, which means volunteers aren’t only coming to help, but to learn. The local people also have something that volunteers can learn from them, so both sides can benefit from each other.”

Still, Raksmey admits it’s hard on children who often grow attached to their foreign visitors.

He says children must be educated about the program so they know what to expect.

Kayla Robertson is a 23-year-old traveler who was placed at an orphanage for 3-weeks.

She says she grappled with the issues surrounding ‘volunteer tourism,’ but ultimately decided the benefits outweighed the risk.

“It’s a positive thing if it’s done in the right way. The organizations involved benefit both from the small amount of money they receive, but also from the manpower. They just need help and sometimes they lack the resources. They quite often don’t have anything and they need the help.”

But concerns remain.

Despite going through a reputable organization, Kayla says the acceptance criteria were lax and she was not required to complete a background or police check.

“Most of us are qualified in someway to do this. However, should someone maybe not be quite as genuine and honest in their persons, it would be very easy to slip under the radar. I think there should be more done to make sure volunteers are who they say they are, just to make it safer.”

Child rights activist Sebastien Marot agrees.

“This campaign that we have for tourism and volunteers is exactly that. It is saying you need to check you need to control you need to have standards in place to make sure those children are safe.”

Last Updated ( Monday, 07 November 2011 13:54 )  

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