Orphanages and their volunteers: A look at Cambodia’s orphanage voluntourism industry

by Amelia Harvey (picture by Tormod Sandtorv)

Orphanages for children are increasing in number globally and throughout much of Southeast Asia. Worldwide, UNICEF has estimated that as many as 8 million girls and boys live in orphanages or institutional residential care facilities where children are stripped from their families, homes and rights [UNICEF 2006 Pg.183]. This essay will focus on the rise of orphanages in Cambodia and the manner in which voluntourism has accelerated this growth.

The growth of orphanages is not unique to Cambodia and is growing internationally, it is estimated that 80 per cent of children living in orphanages are not actual orphans and have at least one living parent. To bring this to perspective, Haiti has experienced a 150 per cent rise in orphanages since the 2010 earthquake, with only 15 per cent of institutions being formally registered. It is estimated by the Haitian government that 80 per cent have at least one living parents and 92 per cent of orphanages are funded from the United States [Batha 2018]. A similar motive continues in Nepal, where 85 per cent of children are believed to have one living parent and in Ghana, which has seen a 1400 per cent increase in the number of orphanages in the past 13 years [UNICEF 2019][Matthews 2019].

Cambodia faces a similar situation as written above. Between 2005 to 2010, while the number of parentless children fell, the number of orphanages rose by over 75 per cent and the number of children living in these institutions increased by 80 per cent [Guiney & Mostafanezhad 2015 p.140][Matthews 2019]. Furthermore, the push for more children to entre orphanages has been promoted by the false mindset that has penetrated the culture claiming that a child in an orphanage will have better educational opportunities and be able to learn English. In turn, it is advocated that the child will have more employment prospects in later life to then lift their families out of poverty in the future. While this is not only false and damaging to families and their children, it places a burden on the child to be responsible for their family and destroys their ability to forge their own path in life [Matthews 2019]. Children with disabilities are consistently placed in orphanages as their families believe the orphanages will be more equipped to care for them. Overall, poverty has become the main factor in children relocating to orphanages, not the incapacity of their parents and families to raise them[ReThink Orphanages 2019].

A key factor in the Cambodian orphanage boom has been due to the influx of volunteer tourists, or ‘voluntourists’. Voluntourism is the phenomenon of outside people, generally from the global north, paying to participate in programs, usually in development or conservation projects, generally in the global south. Orphanage voluntourism is a subsection of the industry, it is short-term volunteering at an orphanage, donating money and goods, or attending performances incorporated into a holiday [Guiney & Mostafanezhad 2015 p.133]. Orphanage voluntourism is a part of the global poverty tourism industry and has emerged in Cambodia among tourists seeking to ‘give back’ during their travels. The vast majority of orphanages are not run by the state, rather they are funded in whole by fees and donations from volunteers and other tourists [Matthews 2019]. The fees donated are usually made in cash and from then on becomes untraceable and embroiled in corruption, one report indicated a foreigners handing up to $7000 to an orphanage director without receiving a receipt or any indication of where the funds will be going [Guiney & Mostafanezhad 2015 p.140].

The lack of transparency about the paths the money has meant little of the funds collected go towards the children in need. Testimonies from children who have lived at orphanages highlight the lack of resources they received outlining “We never had enough food to eat … often we would catch mice to eat” and “the volunteers at the orphanage never noticed anything, but they notices us looking poor, so they would donate” [Parliament of Australia 2017]. Furthermore, gifts, clothes and toys given to the children by visitors are also reclaimed by the orphanage directors to then be resold, creating a never-ending cycle at the expense of the children [Matthews 2019]. To generate more revenue, children are forced to perform traditional Khmer songs and dances “to make them [the tourists] happy” and uphold the ‘poor but happy’ vibe. The children are essentially treated as slaves at the oblivion of the visitor [Parliament of Australia 2017] [BBC 2018].

To expand, the voluntourism industry has significant emotional toll on the children themselves. The children are expected to enhance their vulnerability while expressing continuous joy about the visitors in their home, with some children being told to refer to the visitors as “mummy” and “daddy” (in English) and befriend them to heighten emotional reactions. The orphanage directors work as ‘emotional supervisors’ to ensure the children act accordingly to elicit high donations and so the children do not inform the visitors of the abuse they experience [Guiney 2017 p.131]. Furthermore, many children in orphanages experience attachment disorder as the high turnover of volunteers as they are constantly forming new emotional connections with new adults. Former children at orphanages loved the attention from volunteers but have said “it was even more terrible when they [the volunteers] left; every time it would feel like I was being abandoned” [Guiney 2017 p.133] [Parliament of Australia 2017]. The children have been conditioned to cuddle anyone, leaving them vulnerable in a path leading to paedophiles and sexual assault, especially as approximately 22% of tourists in Cambodia visiting for sex tourism, with child sex tourism unfortunately embedded into this [Guiney 2017 p.134].

The further trouble in voluntourism in orphanages is that the volunteers themselves do not have any applicable skills needed for working with children, nor do they receive sufficient training. Moreover, the practice of them entering the children’s homes and viewing them as a tourist commodity reinforces Western superiority perceptions while also eroding their right to privacy and agency in their lives [Guiney & Mostafanezhad 2015 p.134].

To combat the growing number of orphanages, the Cambodian Government is working towards an action plan with a goal to return 30 per cent of children in orphanages to their families or to community and family based care. By June 2019, 250 children have successfully reunited with their families and communities and 449 cases have been opened by the Department of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation in Cambodia. The children will have support with their reintegration from social workers and be re-enrolled in schools [UNICEF 2019]. In conjunction to combat the growth of orphanages fuelled by voluntourism, the United Kingdom Foreign & Commonwealth Office warn citizens about the risks orphanage volunteering poses to the children and the Australian Government maintains child performances in orphanages is tantamount to modern-day slavery [United Kingdom 2015][BBC 2018]. Many large travel companies began to stand against orphanage tourism, including Intrepid, Projects Abroad, Flight Centre, World Challenge and more, creating an international coalition against the practice [ReThink Orphanages 2018].

Living in an orphanage is one of the most damaging environments a child can grow up in. yet even with the harm institutionalisation brings being well known, orphanages continue to be built. The orphanage industry has been booming in Cambodia, fuelled by the voluntourism industry of wealthy foreigners paying large sums to visit and play with the children accompanied with the cultural misconception that children will receive high quality education in the orphanages. As the extreme negative impacts of the orphanage industry is revealed, the Cambodian Government needs to continue with reintegrating children into their families and communities while foreign governments and travel companies alike need to advise against orphanage tourism.



Batha, E 2018 Most children in orphanages are not orphans [ONLINE] Available at: http://news.trust.org/item/20181114025819-qqbtx/ [Accessed 24 October 2019]

BBC 2018 Australia says orphanage trafficking is modern-day slavery [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-46390627 [Accessed 25 October 2019]

Guiney, T & Mostafanezhad, M 2015 The Political economy of orphanage tourism in Cambodia Tourist Studies Vol, 15(2) Pg.133-4,140

Guiney, T 2017 “Hug-an-orphan vacations”: “Love” and emotion in orphanage tourism Geographical Journal 184 (2) June 2017 Pg.133-4

Image: Knaus, C 2017 The race to rescue Cambodian children from orphanages exploiting them for profit [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/19/the-race-to-rescue-cambodian-children-from-orphanages-exploiting-them-for-profit [Accessed 25 October 2019]

Matthews, L 2019 Critiques of Voluntourism SOCU1038 RMIT University 21:20 minutes 23 October 2019 Times 17:30-35:00

Parliament of Australia, 2017 Orphanage Trafficking Committee in establishing the Modern Slavery Act in Australia [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/ModernSlavery/Final_report/section?id=committees%2Freportjnt%2F024102%2F25036 [Accessed 25 October 2019]

ReThink Orphanages 2018 Travel Companies that do not support orphanage tourism [ONLINE] Available at: https://rethinkorphanages.org/volunteer-checklist/travel-companies-do-not-support-orphanage-tourism [Accessed 25 October 2019]

ReThink Orphanages 2019 Facts and Figures about Orphanage Tourism [ONLINE] Available at: https://rethinkorphanages.org/problem-orphanages/facts-and-figures-about-orphanage-tourism [Accessed 25 October 2019]

UNICEF 2006 World Report on Violence against Children Chapter 5, Violence against children in care and justice institutions Page 183

UNICEF 2019 Escaping the misery of orphanage life [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.unicef.org/cambodia/stories/escaping-misery-orphanage-life [Accessed 25 October 2019]

UNICEF 2019 Volunteering in Orphanages [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.unicef.org/rosa/what-we-do/child-protection/volunteering-orphanages [Accessed 24 October 2019]

United Kingdom 2015 Gap years, volunteering overseas and adventure travelling [ONLINE] Updated 18 October 2019 Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/safer-adventure-travel-and-volunteering-overseas [Accessed 25 October 2019]


Amelia Harvey is an Undergraduate Student majoring in International Studies at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Australia. She has been working as an intern at ASEAN Studies Center UGM for two months and currently working on her final undergraduate thesis. She could be reached through email amelia.harvey1998@hotmail.com

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