Cambodia’s Fake Orphanages Deemed ‘Modern-Day Slavery’

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At 6:30 in the morning, most children are fast asleep. But not the boys and girls of Little Angels Orphanage in Cambodia. Instead of being in their beds, the children are crammed at work stations, creating trinkets they can sell to passing tourists.

However, in a chilling report by Der Spiegel, most of the orphans stuck in manual labor are not orphans at all. Instead, parents send their children to these homes in the hopes that they can make money from tourists who want to support orphans, either by purchasing souvenirs or by engaging in what experts call “voluntourism.”

The situation has become so dire that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) does not even refer to these places as orphanages anymore, but rather uses the term “residential care institutions.” According to the organization, only one in five “orphans” has actually lost his or her parents.

Throughout Cambodia, nearly 16,000 children are in these homes.

Parents often send their children to these homes because they cannot provide food and lodging. Moreover, the fact that these children sometimes make money they can send home is tempting for impoverished parents.

However, UNICEF has reported that these institutionalized children suffer lasting damage from these experiences, such as having issues “integrating themselves into society, forging relationships and, having never experienced a regular family life themselves, being responsible parents,” per Der Spiegel.

In addition, there have been reports of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and health violations at many of these homes.

These orphanages manage to make a profit by two avenues. The first is selling trinkets to passers-by. After a purchase, the children line up and sing songs, like “You Raise Me Up.”

However, it is unlikely that much of the revenue benefits the children; Little Angels Orphanage claims that children receive 20 percent, with the other 80 percent going to operational costs, though this has not been verified.

However, even more damaging is the practice of “voluntourism.” This recent phenomenon involves tourists seeking out philanthropic experiences, often at cost. The trend is particularly rampant in Australia, where 57 percent of universities advertise volunteer opportunities at these orphanages, per The Guardian. The orphanages are naturally often the subjects of fundraising efforts by well-meaning students.

The Australian government has deemed the practice “modern-day slavery.”

In a speech last year in London, Australian Senator Linda Reynolds referred to voluntourism as the “perfect 21st century scam,” whereby naïve tourists get a “sugar rush” from being charitable — and then rush to social media to post about it for a second high.

Linda Reynolds
Australian Senator Linda ReynoldsFeatured image credit: Stefan PostlesGetty Images

Many NGOs, such as ChildSafe, hope to bring awareness to tourists who are looking to volunteer. On its website, Childsafe posts a stern message for those wishing to volunteer.

“Working with children in institutions such as orphanages is a job for local experts, not for travelers who are just passing through.”

Fortunately, the Cambodian government has been working with UNICEF to help bring this cruel practice to an end. They report that 11 homes have recently been shut down.

However, long-time campaigner Long Sedtha notes that there is still much work to be done to stop these orphanage scams.

“It makes me sick that people profit from the misery of these families.”