By Claudia Russell

While it may seem like an opportunity to see the world while helping those less fortunate, “volunteer abroad” programs raise a horde of ethical issues. Lawyer and activist Hannah Reid felt so concerned about what she saw on her volunteering placement in Cambodia, she left after a week.[i]

Upon investigation she found that many well-intentioned volunteer programs enabled an industry based on exploitation and child trafficking to thrive. Since early 2018 she has worked with several major New Zealand media outlets to expose the darker aspects of the voluntourism industry.

Reid travelled to Cambodia in 2014 while still a student, hoping to volunteer at a women’s rights NGO. Yet what she saw raised concerns about International Volunteers HQ (IVHQ)’s poor auditing process and lack of supervision (particularly of volunteers in roles like teaching and caring for disabled children). According to Reid, IVHQ handed most of the control over to their country partner, and did not intervene when volunteers were left with nothing to do or treated children in their care like “tourist attractions”. Volunteers were allegedly recruited off the street with no prior criminal background checks and given little training on navigating language barriers.[ii]

IVHQ states that there is “little factual basis” to Reid’s claims.[iii] Notably, however, they have stopped placing volunteers in orphanages.[iv] The term “orphanages” can actually be misleading when referring to residential care facilities in countries such as Cambodia, as a recent report from the Cambodian government revealed that almost 80% of the children living in 406 care facilities still had a parent.[v] Families are encouraged to send their child away to relieve an economic burden, allowing these institutions to reap a profit[vi] while placing children in unsafe environments. In 2015, the director of Our Home Orphanage — previously the site of an IVHQ placement — was arrested on 9 charges of child sexual abuse.[vii]

The risks that children can face in orphanages are further exemplified by the stories of people like Sinet Chan. Chan, an ambassador for the Cambodian Children’s Trust with Tara Winkler, says that she lived in an orphanage where children ate mice and she was physically and sexually abused by the director.[viii] She and Winkler have supported Australia’s introduction of legislation recognising orphanage trafficking as modern slavery, and hope that other countries do the same.[ix]

Government-run orphanages were phased out in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union in the 20th century, and for good reason. Residential care can lead to the physical, mental and emotional detriment of children. Studies show resident children are at risk of suffering attachment disorders, mental illness, and developmental delays.[x] Additionally, there is evidence that links residential care to “prolonged, systematic and institutionalised abuse of children.”[xi] As adults, resident children can struggle to reintegrate into society and form healthy relationships.[xii]

In this case, well-intentioned voluntourists simply exacerbate the issues of residential care. For example, adverse caregiving by voluntourists in a residential facility or orphanage means children are likely to demonstrate disorganised attachment behaviour.[xiii] Children who form bonds with their caregivers, only to have that caregiver leave after a short time, are denied a secure attachment. This results in an ambivalence concerning their own self-worth, and children come to view relationships as hurtful.[xiv]

Residential care is arguably in direct contravention of the rights of children under international law. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that, where possible, a child should be raised in a living home by their family.[xv] Despite this, 80 percent of children in residential care have family who could care for them, given the right support.[xvi] This seems illogical when residential care is more expensive than family or community-based care.[xvii] Many voluntourists are plainly unaware of the risks they thus pose to resident children and orphans.[xviii]

Voluntourists are often untrained and unqualified to interact with resident children.[xix] This means their presence can damage vulnerable children with “highly complex needs”, opening them up to potential abuse.[xx] High levels of voluntourism have created a demand for an ‘orphanage industry’, perpetuating the trafficking of children who are then exploited for profit. Because of this, many children have been unnecessarily institutionalised, particularly those who could be better cared for by their families.

In most cases, voluntourists are unaware that the majority of children living in residential care have living parents.[xxi] Institutionalisation can also occur through willful deception by orphanage directors, seeking to populate their orphanages in order to meet the demand of voluntourists.[xxii] Numbers of infants in this position are steadily increasing across the globe.[xxiii]

While the New Zealand government is yet to acknowledge voluntourism as an issue, there is talk that legislation to stop modern slavery may be in the works. So far the United Kingdom, Australia and several EU countries have enacted modern slavery acts in order to monitor human trafficking, wage theft and other forms of exploitation of vulnerable people.

Footnotes: 

[i] Chris Chang “Child exploitation fears lead to Kiwi volunteers being phased out of overseas orphanages” One News Now <www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news>

[ii] Reid, above n 4.

[iii] Nicholas Jones “Voluntourism warning: ‘A dash of enthusiasm does not qualify’” (10 February 2018) NZ Herald <www.nzherald.co.nz>.

[iv] Nicholas Jones “Kiwi company ends controversial orphanage placements” (10 February 2018) NZ Herald <www.nzherald.co.nz>.

[v] Kingdom of Cambodia Mapping of Residential Care Facilities in the Capital and 24 Provinces in the Kingdom of Cambodia (Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, February 2017) at 16.

[vi] Jones, above n 6.

[vii] Reid, above n 4.

[viii] Jones, above n 6.

[ix] Jones, above n 6.

[x]  “Children in Residential Care Institutions”, above n 13.

[xi] With the Best Intentions
 A Study of Attitudes Towards Residential Care in Cambodia (Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, Cambodia, 2011) at 24.

[xii] “Children in Residential Care Institutions”, above n 13.

[xiii] Colleen Doyle and Dante Cicchetti “From the Cradle to the Grave: The Effect of Adverse Caregiving Environments on Attachment and Relationships Throughout the Lifespan” (2017) 24 at 206.

[xiv] At 205.

[xv] The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, art 7 and art 9.

[xvi] “Children in Residential Care Institutions”, above n 13.

[xvii] “Children in Residential Care Institutions”, above n 13.

[xviii] With the Best Intentions, above n 16, at 31.

[xix] “Children in Residential Care Institutions”, above n 13.

[xx] “Children in Residential Care Institutions”, above n 13.

[xxi] With the Best Intentions, above n 16, at 32.

[xxii] “Submission to the Inquiry”, above n 13.

[xxiii] “Children in Residential Care Institutions”, above n 13.


This article is a result of research carried out by Hannah Reid, the Equal Justice Project Pro Bono team, and the Equal Justice Project Communications team.

Claudia Russell is an International Relations and Political Studies student at the University of Auckland. 

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