Voluntourism’s Dark Side-The Scam of Fake Orphanages in Cambodia


By Vanessa Steinmetz and Maria Feck (Photo)

Thousands of children in Cambodia live in orphanages even though their parents are still alive. Some of the institutions exist solely to make money from tourists. Now, efforts are being made to reunite the families, but that is easier said than done.

Every morning at 6:30, the boys and girls of the Little Angels orphanage in Cambodia get to work, sitting at wooden tables set up in front of the entrance to ensure that passing tourists can’t miss them.

For hours at a time, they use hammers and small chisels to punch holes in pieces of leather traced with delicate patterns. No one says a word as they work — one of the boys has earbuds in his ears. The leather creations are traditionally used in Cambodia for shadow puppet shows, but here they serve as souvenirs for tourists. The larger works sell for as much as $700.

At around 11:00 a.m., a small tour bus stops on the dusty road in front of the orphanage. Little Angels is located not far from Angkor Wat, the World Heritage Site in Siem Reap Province, which attracted more than 2.5 million visitors last year.

Colorfully-dressed Chinese tourists pour out of the bus, drop some money into a transparent donation box, buy small heart-shaped leather pendants and give the children bags of candy. To show their gratitude, the youngsters line up and begin to sing songs, ending with the English-language classic: “You Raise Me Up.” The tourists take pictures with their smartphones.

The show is performed by the children whenever groups of visitors stop by. But apart from the moving lyrics, the 80 children in the orphanage don’t speak much English at all. They spend their mornings working before then sitting through five hours of lessons at a public school in the afternoon.

One of the boys chiseling patterns in the cowhides is Dorm Sophea. The 15-year-old has the slender build of an elementary school student, but he sounds surprisingly mature when he speaks. “I like it here because I can earn money,” he says. The youngster makes between $10 and $20 a month.

Nearly all of his earnings go to his mother. His parents, after all, are not dead — and they don’t even live that far away. But his mother, who was abandoned by his father, needs the boy’s monthly income, so he has been living in the orphanage for the last two years.

The beds are crammed together in the sparse sleeping quarters, with some of the threadbare mattresses draped with colorful mosquito netting. Three children sleep in each double bed, sometimes four. Their possessions are stowed in large, gray lockers.

Thousands of children live in orphanages in Cambodia, though many of the boys and girls still have parents – a reality that has prompted the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to refer to these homes as “residential care institutions” rather than orphanages. The last official survey, conducted in 2015, found that there are 406 of these homes in the country, housing more than 16,000 children. According to UNICEF, only about one in five “orphans” is actually without relatives.

Most of the families that send their children to such facilities are mired in dire poverty. Even public schools cost money in Cambodia and the homes cover the expenses and some offer additional English lessons. For the parents, these institutions serve as a kind of free boarding school where, in some cases, the children are even able to earn money.

The extent to which the children suffer from being separated from their parents and from the conditions in the homes varies from case to case, but many of them hope the experience will increase their future chances of landing a well-paid job. Most will unfortunately be disappointed, though. According to UNICEF, these institutionalized children later have great difficulties integrating themselves into society, forging relationships and, having never experienced a regular family life themselves, being responsible parents. Experts say the homes are producing a generation of traumatized children.

Without Tourists, the System Wouldn’t Work

It’s hard to say how much of the tourists’ money actually benefits the children. In the case of the Little Angels, the facility says that 20 percent of revenues goes directly to the children while 80 percent is used to help cover operational costs.

It is nevertheless clear, though, that such orphanages can be a lucrative business for those who run them — and the system wouldn’t work without tourists. The government doesn’t provide any funding.

In addition to buying souvenirs from the shops and making donations, there’s another way for foreigners to do what appears, at least on the surface, to be a good deed for these Cambodian children: They can help out in institutions and schools by, for example, giving English lessons — and by paying for everything out of their own pockets. In return, they are rewarded with the feeling of providing development aid in a poor country as a privileged Westerner. It is a type of overseas involvement that has come to be known as “voluntourism.”

“Learn English, Get a Good Job”

There are many positive examples of such voluntourism in which official guidelines are strictly followed. But visitors will get an entirely different impression if they hail a tuktuk, a kind of motorized rickshaw, and head to the homes that are a popular destination for foreigners looking to help out during a brief visit to the country.

One of these is the Smiling Hearts institution, where, on this particular day, English lessons for orphans and disadvantaged children are given exclusively by foreigners. The volunteer teachers come from Spain, the UK and China — and the classrooms are crammed so full of tables that only one child at a time can squeeze between them. Someone has written on the blackboard: “Learn English, get a good job.”

In another room, a young woman is desperately trying to get the children to quiet down. It’s a first-grade class and everyone is talking at once, the noise level in the classroom is off the charts. When all else fails, the frustrated volunteer teacher grabs her selfie stick and beats it on the desk in front of her until the children finally quiet down.

According to government regulations, foreigners are not allowed to conduct lessons alone. Belen Liebana, 44, is doing so anyway. In her native Spain, she quit her job as a pharmacist before taking her trip to Siem Reap, where she wanted to do something different and meaningful with her life.

An agency arranged a teaching position in Cambodia for her — Liebana would rather not say how much it cost. On her last day, she handed out cups of Coke to the children, who eagerly drank it while Liebana smiled. She seems unaware that such programs have been criticized.

And some of that criticism has been harsh. A few months ago, the Australian government even went so far as to classify the orphanage tourism business as a form of modern-day slavery. In a speech last year in London, Australian Senator Linda Reynolds referred to voluntourism as the “perfect 21st century scam,” a scheme in which well-meaning visitors get a “sugar rush” from allegedly doing good and then posting their experiences on social media.

“Not for Travelers Who Are Just Passing Through”

Organizations like the ChildSafe Movement are raising awareness of the issue with a poster campaign that gives travelers tips about what to consider before engaging in volunteer work. “Working with children in institutions such as orphanages is a job for local experts, not for travelers who are just passing through,” the organization points out in its list of tips for travelers.

The campaign notes that children deserve more than good intentions — they need skilled teachers and, most importantly, they are not tourist attractions. The organization emphasizes that reputable institutions would never allow tourists to take pictures of children, touch them or be alone with them. And yet, there are reports that visitors are sometimes even allowed to take children out of the institutions for short trips.

Long Sedtha has been working for many years to ensure that families stay together in Siem Reap — and that the despair of poverty does not lead them to send their children to an institution. “It makes me sick that people profit from the misery of these families,” he says.

Through his organization, called the Build Your Future Today Center, Sedtha works to help poor villagers by collecting donations for agricultural projects and for the construction of tuition-free schools. The activist takes in children who really do have no parents or whose relatives have trouble coping — but, at the same time, he also provides support for their families.

Returning Children to Their Parents

Meanwhile, the Cambodian government has joined in the effort to turn the situation around and bring families back together. Working in collaboration with UNICEF, government officials have begun to inspect and close down certain institutions. In Siem Reap alone, official figures show that 11 children’s homes have been shut down. At the same time, a reintegration program has been launched for 644 children from Siem Reap Province who have relatives or even complete families.

One of the first children in Siem Reap to be returned to their families was To Brosna. The 17-year-old girl spent four years in an orphanage before it was forced to close in 2018 when the operator could no longer raise enough money to provide for the children. Once a month, a representative from the Ministry of Social Affairs comes to speak with Brosna’s family of seven, which lives in a small wooden house built on stilts and consists of only one room.

The sleeping area for the girls is separated by a gray curtain riddled with holes, the family owns no furniture and there’s a fire pit in the garden. The squat toilet is in a concrete hut a few meters from the main house.

Brosna sleeps on nothing but a straw mat. Reaching behind a bag of clothing, she pulls out her most prized possession: a notebook full of drawings of ball gowns and wedding dresses. Ever since she watched a TV show about fashion designers at the orphanage, she has dreamed of creating fashion herself.

Chay Vivath, the man from the ministry who visits the family each month, is not completely satisfied with the family. He gives them a “yellow” or intermediate rating, meaning, for example, that the family is uncooperative or the child is not attending school. In Brosna’s case, the family doesn’t have enough to eat and depends on handouts.

Had it been up to Brosna, she wouldn’t have come home at all, but stayed at the orphanage — even though she had to dance for the tourists that came to visit. The girls would don light blue traditional dresses and put on makeup — Brosna still has a picture of it.

She still has particularly fond memories of one visiting Westerner, even if was years ago and the Italian woman — her name was Clementine — spent only two weeks with the children. Brosna says that she baked with them and taught them games. “She hugged us all,” says the girl. They are still friends on Facebook, but there’s no internet connection in the small wooden house. To make matters worse, she’s lost contact with her friends from the orphanage — and she feels alienated from her own family.

Her mother saw no alternative but to give away the eldest daughter, saying that her husband was sick at the time and there was rarely enough for everyone to eat. Now, the mother is suffering because Brosna didn’t want to come back. “When she returned to us, she didn’t want anything, she didn’t even want to live,” says the mother, who adds that things are slowly improving.

Eating Dinner Together

Dorm Sophea, the boy from the Little Angels orphanage, won’t be able to return to his family anytime soon. His mother Norm Teab depends on the money he earns to make the payments on her small-business loan. Just a few hundred meters away from the orphanage, she runs her own small, open-air snack bar, where she sells grilled chicken and fish. She took out a $2,000 bank loan to launch the venture.

She says that her son had actually wanted to go to the institution. When she misses him, she sometimes calls him on his cell phone, especially in the evenings.

When the son is asked what he misses most, he pauses to reflect. His fondest memory is eating dinner together, he finally says. Sometimes his mother would say something funny and everyone would laugh.

He says that if he wants to have a bit of fun at the Little Angels, like playing soccer, he has to ask the director for permission. The director, Dorm Sophea says, will sometimes agree, saying: “OK, but only very briefly.”




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