Does volunteering in an orphanage create a demand for child trafficking?

August 24, 2016

Australian legal scholar Kathryn E van Doore shares a summary of her recent article, “Paper orphans: Exploring child trafficking for the purpose of orphanages,” which appeared in the International Journal of Children’s Rights.

Kathryn E van Doore

There are an estimated eight million children residing in orphanages internationally[1] and four out of five children in these orphanages are not orphans.[2] It is well documented that many of these children are taken from their families by recruiters and sold into orphanages for the purpose of profit.[3] These children are known as ‘paper orphans’ and their plight is global. In 2003, Save the Children reported that 85% of children in orphanages in Uganda had identifiable and traceable family,[4] while in Ghana, the number of child care homes had significantly grown from 5 in the 1990’s to over 110 in 2010[5] correlating with news reports that, ‘running an orphanage in Ghana has become a business enterprise, a highly lucrative and profitable venture,’ and that, ‘children’s welfare at these orphanages has become secondary to the profit motive.’[6] Orphanages have also been known to actively recruit for children. In Nepal, children are removed from their biological families under the guise of education, and placed in orphanages to attract orphanage volunteers and funding.[7] In Malawi, a comprehensive national survey of 104 institutions stated that 52% of the facilities were actively involved in recruiting.[8] While many orphanages in Cambodia have turned to orphanage tourism as a way to attract more donors with almost all centres funded by overseas donors.[9]

The profit in the orphanage business comes from volunteers and foreign funding. Volunteering in orphanages is a popular activity for people travelling to developing nations and as such orphanages are frequently established in locations that are popular with western travellers to make it easier to volunteer.[10] Volunteering with children in orphanages is often used to attract funds.[11] Some orphanages are established for the sole purpose of satisfying the western desire to volunteer. In these centres, children are portrayed as paper orphans in order to garner international funding.[12]

My research argues that the recruitment of children with biological families into orphanages for the purpose of orphanage tourism should be regarded as a form of child trafficking under international law. The reason that this has not been regarded as a form of child trafficking previously is because to meet the legal requirements of trafficking, the purpose of the act of recruitment must be exploitation. Exploitation is defined as, at a minimum, prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. Thus, the argument that recruiting a child into an orphanage is child trafficking has not been an easy fit, and has not been made legally until now.

I argue that the effects on children of orphanage tourism should be regarded as a form of exploitation. Whilst volunteering in an orphanage is usually regarded as an admirable activity, in fact it causes children a lot of harm. Children in orphanages are often trained to perform traditional dancing and forced to perform for visitors and volunteers. Some children are sent out to beg for funds in bars at night or hand out flyers advertising their orphanage.[13] Some orphanage operators have deliberately kept children malnourished to attract more sympathy and thus more money.[14] Even where orphanages are well run, over sixty years of research tells us that the very process of institutionalization is harmful to a child’s development.[15]

Orphans and orphanages have become a business in some developing nations. My argument is that like any business, the demand for the product, in this case, orphanage tourism, has driven the market. To satisfy the demand, children are taken from families with the promise of education or returning in the future, and manufactured or produced as paper orphans to reside in orphanages and solicit funding. The aim of my research is to illustrate that this unnecessary separation should be categorised as a form of trafficking, with the demand driver for such trafficking into orphanages being orphanage tourism.

Kathryn (Kate) van Doore is an international children’s rights lawyer and an academic at Griffith Law School, Australia. Kate currently researches the intersections of child rights, institutionalisation and human trafficking. She is a co-founder of Forget Me Not, an international non-governmental organisation focused on child protection and the deinstitutionalisation of children in Nepal, Uganda and India.


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[1] Andrew Dunn, W. Jareg & Douglas Webb, ‘A last resort: The growing concern about children in residential care-Save the Children’s position on residential care’ (Save the Children, 2003) 16.

[2] Corinna Csáky, ‘Keeping children out of harmful institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care’ (Save the Children, 2009) 5, vii.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Andrew Dunn, W. Jareg & Douglas Webb, ‘A last resort: The growing concern about children in residential care-Save the Children’s position on residential care’ (Save the Children, 2003) 16.

[5] Department of Social Work, Ghana, National Plan of Action for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (Department of Social Work, Ghana, 2014) 7.

[6] Integrated Regional Information Networks, West Africa: Protecting children from orphan-dealers (2009) <> at 23 October 2014.

[7] Martin Punaks and Katie Feit. Next Generation Nepal. The Paradox on Orphanage Volunteering: Combating Child Trafficking through Ethical Voluntourism. (2014).

[8] John Williamson, ‘Families, not Orphanages: A Review and Recent Developments’ (Paper presented at the USAID 38th Child Welfare Symposium, San Francisco, USA, 2014).

[9] Ibid 25.

[10] P Jane Reas, ‘“So, Child Protection, I’ll Make a Quick Point of It Now”: Broadening the Notion of Child Abuse in Volunteering Vacations in Siem Reap, Cambodia’ (2015) 18(4) Tourism Review International 295, 306.

[11] UNICEF. With the best of intentions: A study of attitudes towards Residential Care in Cambodia. (2011), 27.

[12] Kate van Doore. The Business of Orphanages: Where do ‘orphans’ come from?. The Conversation. (2015). Accessed on 24 May 2015 from:

[13] UNICEF, With the best intentions: A study of attitudes towards residential care in Cambodia (United Nations Children’s Fund and Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, Cambodia, 2011).

[14] Tess Guiney and Mary Mostafanezhad, ‘The political economy of orphanage tourism in Cambodia’ (2014) Tourist Studies 2, 19, 13.

[15] UNICEF. With the best of intentions: A study of attitudes towards Residential Care in Cambodia. (2011), 8.

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