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  • Writer's pictureMartin Punaks

Beyond Orphanage Visits: what are the responsible alternatives?

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

This blog post was originally published on the Responsible Tourism Partnership website on 30 October 2019 as part of the lead up to the World Travel Market 2019.

Between 2012 and 2016, I was the Country Director for Next Generation Nepal.  We worked closely with the Government of Nepal to rescue trafficked children from exploitative orphanages, rehabilitate them, trace their families in remote mountain villages, and reunify them with their parents or other family members.  We were committed to quality over quantity, and we had a 100% success record of no child we reunified ever being re-trafficked.  The problem was that for every child we reunified, another 50 were being brought to Kathmandu and placed in profit-making orphanages.  Well-intentioned but naïve tourists, volunteers and donors were giving their time and money to these orphanages believing they were supporting genuine ‘orphans’, whereas in fact, all the children had families who had also been deceived into believing that the orphanage was the best place for their children.

So we set about trying to tackle the problem at its source and raise awareness of the links between institutionalisation, trafficking and voluntourism.  We documented how the ‘orphanage business’ works in a seminal report; we persuaded embassies to adopt travel advice against orphanage volunteering; we worked closely with partners in the travel sector by running talks to potential volunteers in tourist pubs; we engaged the international media; and we joined a global movement of like-minded organisations campaigning against orphanage voluntourism.  Whilst we certainly started a lively debate, it was an uphill struggle to have an impact on the causes of this great tragedy – few travel and volunteering organisations (but by no means all) were willing to meaningfully engage with us or change their orphanage tours and projects.

Then one day in 2016 – boom!  JK Rowling tweeted about orphanage voluntourism, and everyone began to listen.  This was followed by a media frenzy around orphanage trafficking being included in the Australian Modern Slavery Act in 2018, and the US State Department including orphanage trafficking and voluntourism in its 2018 TIP Report.  The travel industry responded positively and began withdrawing from orphanage visits and volunteering.

Whilst this change in fortune was fantastic news and well worth celebrating, the sudden arrival of the tipping point caught many of us in the child protection sector off-guard.  We had been so focussed on campaigning against orphanage volunteering we were not properly prepared to respond to the plethora of calls for support from the travel sector into how to divest responsibly and safely, or to advise the travel sector in how to develop ethical alternatives to replace orphanage trips.

Thankfully the child protection sector is now catching up.  A number of exciting initiatives are on the horizon, including ReThink Orphanage’s forthcoming divestment resource to be launched in November, and ABTA and Home and Homes for Children’s Orphanage Tourism Taskforce.

WTM Responsible Tourism is also changing its focus this year – moving beyond its usual format of child protection experts explaining the problem, this year we will instead be showcasing examples of good practice from within the travel and volunteering sectors on ethical and child-friendly alternatives, and other solution-focussed schemes.  I am honoured to have been asked by Professor Harold Goodwin to moderate this year’s panel on “Child Protection – what is better than orphanages?”, on Tuesday 5 November at 11:30 am.  Intrepid Travel, The Code and people and places: responsible volunteering will be presenting their work.  I hope to see some of you there.

We have also developed an online resource called Beyond Orphanage Visits on the Responsible Tourism website.  This has been written for travel and volunteering organisations interested in safely and responsibly moving away from orphanage visits and developing ethical alternatives.  It showcases good practice that already exists so others can learn from this.  Please do take some time to review it and see how it could help you.

I often think back to my activist days in 2012, when we were figuring out how we could make a dent in the problem of orphanage trafficking – it seemed an almost insurmountable task.  So it is with great pleasure that I now find myself sitting side-by-side with incredible colleagues from within the travel and volunteering sectors, working together to make tourism and volunteering the force for good we know it can be for millions of children and families around the world.

Note: The image used above of volunteers waving goodbye to an orphanage manager is based on real photos which have been turned into an illustration by Luci Gardner O’Brien of people and places: responsible volunteering. As a society, we are sharing more images than ever before. Whilst this brings many benefits, we need to make sure that the images being shared will not harm anyone.  The consequences of taking and sharing photos of children without their guardians’ permission not only infringes on their privacy but may, in some situations, reveal their location and put them at risk of abuse by those who wish to harm them.  Images like the one above show real situations without infringing on any individuals’ privacy. We hope that images like this will make people stop and think about how images are used, as well as encourage good practice when it comes to volunteering.  The image above is copyrighted to people and places / Lucinda Rose Gardner O’Brien.



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