Last week, the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, announced an Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. This is a great step forward for Australia as we think about our responsibility for how our actions contribute to modern slavery throughout the world.
I am interested in this issue because of my research looking at how orphanage volunteering can cause child trafficking into orphanages. Senator Linda Reynolds and I have co-written a Voluntourism Information Sheet – Support families, not orphanages and will be highlighting it at the Inquiry.
This short blog will give you an idea of how volunteering in an orphanage might be regarded as a form of modern slavery.
What is modern slavery?
Modern slavery is not defined in any international convention, but usually includes the traditional definition of slavery in addition to ‘debt bondage, serfdom, forced marriage and the delivery of a child for the exploitation of that child are all slavery-like practices and require criminalisation and abolishment’ which are listed in the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention. Modern slavery includes things like bonded labour, forced labour, trafficking, child slavery and forced or early marriage.
What is the link between volunteering in an orphanage and modern slavery?
There are between 2 and 8 million children living in institutions globally and it is estimated the 80% of those children have biological family they could live with if given the opportunity. The business of orphanages has become very lucrative in the last decade, particularly because of the demand of people from countries like Australia wanting to volunteer with orphans.
There is evidence to suggest that where there is a demand for volunteering in orphanages, children are being taken from their families to fill those orphanages and pose as ‘orphans’. Many orphanages are established in popular tourist destinations for this reason. Once in the orphanage, children are often kept in poor conditions, malnourished and without proper healthcare or schooling in order to encourage donations and further funding from volunteers. Other concerning activities are where children are made to perform traditional dances, sent out to beg for funds in bars at night or hand out flyers advertising their orphanage.
My argument is that the effect on children of orphanage tourism should be regarded as a form of exploitation and thus modern slavery. Whilst volunteering in an orphanage is usually admired and supported, over sixty years of research shows that even where orphanages are well run, institutionalisation is harmful to a child’s development. Some things that volunteers find charming like children joyously greeting them with affection can be indicative of cognitive harm and attachment development issues.
We shouldn’t ask questions about whether orphanages are “good” or “genuine”, as regardless of the environment, a continual rotation of volunteers in care giving roles creates a higher prevalence of attachment disorders amongst children and a lasting psychological impact. Recently, Stephen Ucembe, a Kenyan man who grew up in an orphanage outlined his experience in a very moving account here. Surely no one who reads his words can fail to be moved by them and consider the effects that volunteering in orphanages is having on children.
This Inquiry is a chance for Australia to consider how we contribute to this harm when volunteering in orphanages.
Instead of volunteering in orphanages, how can I help?
In our Voluntourism Information Sheet – Support families, not orphanages we make the suggestions as to how best to help. It’s important to remember that while there is a demand for orphanage volunteering, children are being taken from their families for that purpose. Our first step is to stem the demand and the Inquiry is a great chance to think about how we might do this.
We should also focus on supporting organisations that support families rather than continuing to support orphanage care for children. Even where there is no biological family available to care for children, a family environment based in the community is a far better option. This is where our sponsorship and donations are best directed.
Australia has a real chance to lead change on this issue internationally if we can think about the effect our actions are having on these children and place their needs above ours. I look forward to seeing the results of the Inquiry and continuing to be a voice for these children who so many of us want to help.
Kate van Doore is a lecturer at the Griffith Law School. Kate is currently undertaking research into child trafficking, paper orphans and deinstitutionalisation.
Kate is the co-founder of an international non-governmental organization working with children in developing nations. Kate was awarded the Griffith University Arts, Education and Law Young Alumnus Award in 2011 for her commitment to this cause.
For further information
Rethink Orphanages: better solutions for children is a cross-sector network that aims to prevent the unnecessary institutionalisation of children by shifting the way Australia engages with overseas aid and development: www.rethinkorphanages.org
Forget Me Not Australia is an Australian international NGO working at the forefront of rescuing children from orphanages and reunifying them with their families: www.forgetmenot.org.au
Cambodian Children’s Trust is an Australian international NGO working in Cambodia to keep children at home with their families: www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org
 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).
 UNICEF. With the best of intentions: A study of attitudes towards Residential Care in Cambodia. (2011), 8.