Orphanage tourism is on the rise in Myanmar, but although it might seem like the right thing to do, visiting or donating to orphanages may be causing children more harm.
On a recent tour of Dala, across the river from Yangon, our trishaw driver stopped suddenly outside a small, ramshackle building. From inside, we could hear a child crying. “Go in,” he said, pointing to the door.
“Orphanage,” he said. “Go in.”
We declined his offer to go inside, but according to local tour guide Ko San Win, the orphanage has become a popular stop on the itineraries of tourists visiting Myanmar.
“We get all kinds of requests from our clients. Some tourists ask us if they can visit children at an orphanage, so we take them there when we go to Dala,” he said.
This isn’t the only orphanage in Myanmar welcoming tourists through its doors. Orphanage visits from tourists and volunteers, known commonly as “orphanage tourism”, is on the rise in the country, according to UNICEF.
Children are not tourist attractions
Orphanage tourism is already prevalent across Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia and the north of Thailand, where a number of orphanages charge up to US$400 a week for volunteers to spend time with orphans. According to child protection expert Tessa Boudrie, in these countries orphanages have become a tourist destination in their own right.
“Somehow it’s a normal thing to have on your itinerary. So you go to the spa, you go to Angkor Wat and you top it off with a visit to an orphanage,” she said.
And as the number of visitors to Myanmar increases, the phenomenon is spreading here too, with a number of websites offering tourists the opportunity to “give back” and “experience a slice of real life and real people” by teaching English or just “dropping by and saying hello to the adorable children”.
But while visitors may think it is a good way to make a positive contribution to the country, UNICEF says well-meaning “voluntourists” who give time or money to orphanages are doing more harm than good by inadvertently fuelling demand for orphans across Southeast Asia.
“What we have seen in other locations is that people see orphanages as an opportunity to make money. Tourists will go to an orphanage and feel shocked or saddened by what they see, and want to donate money. And when you’ve got large number of tourists donating money it suddenly becomes a good business enterprise for the orphanage director,” said James Gray, child protection specialist at UNICEF.
It is not difficult to see why orphanages may want to attract foreign visitors: Local tour guide Thint Lwyn said that when he takes tourists to visit orphanages “they usually donate about US$100.”
“You see orphanages opening up where the tourists are,” Gray said. “In a five-year period Cambodia had a 75 percent increase in tourists, and at the same time a 75pc increase in the number of new orphanages opening.” He acknowledges that tourists make donations “with the best of intentions”, but says that they could actually be part of the problem rather than the solution.
“Orphanage tourism creates more orphanages … By building orphanages and keeping the conditions quite basic, keeping the children in not the best conditions, you’re more likely to pull at people’s heartstrings and you’re more likely to get more donations,” he said.
In May last year, UNICEF hosted a visit to Cambodia by Myanmar’s deputy minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement, U Phone Swe, who met with representatives of civil society working to combat the country’s worrying orphanage boom. Following the visit, the government committed to a moratorium to prevent the establishment of new orphanages in Myanmar. It’s an important step, says Gray, though it does not help the thousands of children already living in orphanages.
A UNICEF study of registered orphanages in Myanmar found that 73pc of children in institutional care had one or both parents still alive, dispelling the myth that orphanages are for children without parents. Yet there has been an increase in children living in orphanages, with 17,322 children living in 217 registered facilities in 2010, compared to 14,410 children in 177 facilities in 2006.
UNICEF says extreme poverty is behind most of these cases. Parents send their children to orphanages believing they will have better access to food, shelter and an education. But there is overwhelming evidence to show the detrimental impacts of residential care on the physical and emotional well-being of children. Institutional care has been replaced with foster care programs or community-based support in many countries worldwide. Orphanages, UNICEF says, should be the last resort.
“Evidence shows that institutions are extremely dangerous for children,” said Gray. “It doesn’t matter how poor a family is, a poor family is still infinitely better for a child’s well-being than an institution.”
But the risks facing children in orphanages don’t end there. Child protection experts are also concerned that ill-intentioned foreigners may be visiting orphanages in order to have direct contact with children.
“People may think it is ok to visit orphanages because they’re not going to harm a child. But if an orphanage is allowing you in then they’re going to be allowing everyone else to come in. There’s no background checks, no documentation,” Gray said. “An unregulated children’s home that is welcoming anyone in: that is the ideal setting for a pedophile or someone who wants to harm children.”
In other Southeast Asian countries there have been a number of cases involving sexual abuse by directors of private orphanages. According to Boudrie, there is already evidence that pedophiles are coming to Myanmar to exploit vulnerable children. She says tourists and volunteers should not be allowed to visit orphanages, regardless of their intentions, as they are putting children at risk who are already vulnerable.
“In the West we long ago steered away from the idea of putting children in institutions, but even if we did have institutions like that, you would never be allowed to visit,” she said. “Can you imagine, in the town where you come from, a bus full of Korean tourists comes and goes into your child’s primary school, cuddles all the children, gives them soft toys and then leaves? It’s mind-blowing.”
Child protection experts say voluntourism contributes to the separation of families by giving legitimacy to institutions which should not exist in the first place. If orphanages did not recieve support from volunteers and donors, they say, orphanages would not exist and children would be cared for by their communities or extended family – where they are better off.
“Children shouldn’t be in an orphanage in the first place,” said Boudrie. “Most of these children are not orphans – they are just poor. So how about we all put our efforts into community-based family support programs instead of orphanages. That is usually a much shorter period of intervention, cheaper and far more effective.”
Currently, evidence that orphanage tourism is taking off in Myanmar is only anecdotal. But UNICEF says it wants to raise awareness of the issue to prevent it from escalating as it has in neighbouring countries.
In May 2014, UNICEF and the Myanmar Department of Social Welfare held a National Forum on the Prevention of Family Separation in Myanmar. The forum brought together 150 participants from civil society, embassies, government, the private sector and medical professionals to raise awareness that many children are being unnecessarily separated from their families and that growing up in residential care puts children at increased risk of exploitation and abuse.
UNICEF is also engaging with the travel and tourism industry in Myanmar to raise awareness of the impact of orphanage tourism, including delivering a series of awareness-raising workshops for tour guides and travel operators.
“Tour guides are the guys on the ground with the tourists so it’s important they have an understanding of this topic. If they get a request to take a tourist to an orphanage they can try to encourage them to think twice about it,” said Gray.
“Children are not tourist attractions … As long as the government and tourism industry are helping to ensure tourists get that message, we’re already a step ahead of other countries 10 years ago.”