After emerging from more than two decades of war in the 1990s, Cambodia has relied heavily on tourism to rebuild its economy.
It is one of the top destinations for young travellers, many of whom sign up with global volunteering companies.
‘Voluntourists‘, however, may be unwittingly fuelling the exploitation of children in poorly regulated orphanages.
Reports of child neglect and appalling living conditions, as well as stories of orphanage directors embezzling donor money, have emerged.
Companies that organise volunteers are also accused of exploiting tourists and children for profit.
In 2012, reporter Juliana Ruhfus travelled to Phnom Penh to investigate. She spoke to children, volunteers and orphanage staff, as well as activists working to stem child abuse in the country. She also went undercover as a volunteer to understand just how little protection children had in a failing orphanage.
Seven years on, Ruhfus reflects on what she discovered there, beginning with why so many children end up in orphanages in the first place.
“The vast majority of the children in these so-called ‘orphanages’ actually do have parents,” she says. “There are people who go around and who effectively recruit these children. They say to the parents that the children are going to get a great education, that they’ll be in touch with lots of Westerners, and the parents allow these recruiters to take the children and then they get put into these ‘orphanages’, and … some of these orphanages are a money-making machine.”
She says that many of the children who grow up away from family, looked after by caregivers and volunteers who come and go, can be traumatised.
“A lot of the children are really damaged. They are damaged firstly because they are being taken away from their parents, and then secondly a lot of them … have what is called an attachment disorder. So that they continuously get attached to a new person; a new volunteer plays with them, showers them with affection, and then leaves very quickly.”
For Ruhfus, posing as a volunteer and requesting to have a day out with some of the children was the most difficult part of covering the story. Without any vetting process, she and her team were allowed to pick any children they wanted and walk out with them. While Ruhfus had a social worker with her for her and the children’s protection, she was shocked by how little oversight they had.
“It was extraordinary because actually, Cambodia is a country that has a well-known problem with child abuse, especially with paedophilia,” she says. “So the idea that we could take these children out without any supervision was quite astounding, and that is really the thing that hit me. I was so focused on ‘Will this happen, can we take the kids out’ that when we finally sat with these kids in the car it was actually quite emotional, because we had this sense, we were driving off with them in a car, and we could have done absolutely anything to these kids.”
But she says awareness has improved over the years since filming.
“On an international level, the awareness has really grown,” she says, pointing to the example of Australia, which has made the trafficking of children into orphanages illegal, deeming it a modern form of slavery.
“In Cambodia itself, the authorities have reacted to some degree. They have shut down some orphanages and they have worked with international agencies like the UN and also international organisations to close these orphanages down and actively reunite the children from orphanages with the families where possible. But also … some of the companies that run voluntourism schemes have decided to ban the sending of untrained volunteers into orphanages.”