September 07th, 2017

Aussie tourists are supporting child slavery overseas

Rob Madsen_orphanages article_image

It happens every day. Well-meaning Australian tourists support child slavery overseas. We know it’s the result of orphanage tourism, the lucrative business model profiting from tourist demand from countries like Australia. Tourists want to go overseas and volunteer with orphans. They fall into a trap of thinking they are helping, when in fact, children are being harmed. Orphanage tourism is a form of exploitation. It’s a form of modern slavery. 

Attorney-General George Brandis took significant action in February this year, commencing an inquiry into establishing an Australian Modern Slavery Act (AMSA).

As such, it’s possible that organising trips for Australians to visit orphanages could become a crime. 

The legislation - recognising modern slavery and how it connects with business supply chains - would shine a light on travel agencies, schools and clubs who send tourists to visit orphanages overseas. I commend the Australian Government for taking this important step forward, however it’s only one measure. As individuals, we have a role to play in ensuring the safety and protection of children around the world.

Research shows that up to eight million children live in orphanages globally, and of these, “more than 80% are not orphans”. These statistics have been widely publicised by author and child rights advocate J.K. Rowling’s charity Lumos. The organisation, which opened in 2005, seeks to replace orphanages with community-based services that provide tailored health, education and support services to children.

In my experience as a child protection consultant, I’ve witnessed these statistics first-hand. I’ve worked in developing communities where orphanages are common. 

I’ve worked on cases where children are kept in orphanages with living relatives mere kilometres away. I’ve encountered children being taken from their families to fill orphanages and pose as orphans.  

Once in an orphanage, children are often kept in poor conditions, malnourished and left without proper healthcare or schooling in order to encourage donations and more funding from volunteer tourists. I’ve watched buses full of these ‘voluntourists’ pull up at the entrances of orphanages and start taking photos of children, despite clear instruction that photos weren’t permitted. 

It's at this point I must ask: would you pay to visit an orphanage in Australia? Would you take photos of children to share with your friends and family?

What is it that blinds us to the absurdity of such a thing once we arrive in a new country? I urge every travelling, volunteering or relocating Australian to think seriously about this.

The reasons children end up in orphanages, despite often having parents, are complex. Poverty is a key player (the UN estimates this accounts for 47% of placements into orphanages), social and political conflict is notoriously effective at separating families, and other cases indicate exploitation and greed. The sad reality is that the issue is not black and white, but the ways to improve the treatment of children everywhere are distinct and easily implemented by us all.

ReThink Orphanages is an Australian network aiming to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children. Member organisations include Intrepid, Flight Centre and AVI. These organisations are united in the belief that profiting from a child’s sustained care in an orphanage is a form of child trafficking. An Australian Modern Slavery Act would assist by ensuring that all exploitative practices are covered and indictable under the act. ReThink Orphanages also contributed substantial information, research and evidence to submissions for the AMSA inquiry. 

Recently, the committee considering anti-slavery laws reviewed such submissions and heard evidence about Australia’s involvement in modern slavery.

The committee is now urging the government to put an immediate ban on orphanage tourism, without waiting for a modern slavery act to be created and passed.

I am confident that such positive action will continue as knowledge of the links between orphanage tourism and child slavery broadens.

So what of our well-intentioned tourists? My advice is this: do your research and spread the word. Children are not, and never should be, tourist attractions. Legislation, accompanied by awareness and education can have a real impact on kids who deserve better. 

Find out more:

Think Child Safe


Better Care Network

Australian Council For International Development

Robert Madsen is a child protection adviser at AVI with more than 20 years’ experience in the child protection field. He has worked internationally developing family re-integration and alternative care programs for trafficked and vulnerable children. Rob is a returned Australian volunteer, having worked in Cambodia as a Social Worker Adviser for Children.