Below Erin LaCroix, the Cambodia country director for South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities (SISHA), offers guidance on what to do if you suspect exploitation or abuse in an orphanage:

SISHA, an anti-human trafficking organisation based in Cambodia, has received numerous reports of abuse and trafficking in orphanages.

Based on our investigations, a shocking pattern has emerged, showing children are being trafficked and exploited as tourist attractions in order to solicit funds from unsuspecting volunteers. There have also been numerous cases of children trafficked through orphanages and sold to adoption agencies for profit.

Orphanages often accept a large influx of volunteers regardless of their credentials and without conducting background checks.

The high turnover rate of volunteers deprives children of stability and threatens their emotional development. Additionally, it could potentially expose them to paedophiles operating under the guise of volunteerism, thus placing them at risk for physical and sexual abuse.

In order to reduce the negative impacts of volunteer tourism, SISHA encourages tourists to Cambodia to carefully vet the organisations that they support.

Before visiting an orphanage, SISHA suggests that volunteers confirm:

  • The orphanage is registered with the local government
  • Background checks are required for all volunteers
  • The child to staff ratio
  • If volunteers are allowed to work unsupervised
  • If the orphanage has a child protection policy in place and a system for reporting suspected abuse

Anyone visiting an orphanage who experiences one or more of the following red flags, should contact a watchdog NGO such as SISHA immediately:

  • Children receive little or no supervision from orphanage staff
  • Children are provided with unsanitary/poor living conditions
  • Children sleep in unisex sleeping quarters
  • Volunteers are left unsupervised with children
  • Any signs of abuse on a child
  • Orphanage allows visitors to take the children out of the orphanage with no supervision
  • Visitors are not asked to provide a police check or background check before entering the orphanage

If a volunteer suspects an orphanage of child abuse or trafficking, they should immediately write down all relevant details - including names, ages, dates, and information about the accused - as well as follow the orphanage's abuse report system.

If the organisation does not respond to the allegations of abuse, volunteers should contact police as well as SISHA's emergency hotline. They should refrain from conducting their own investigation or confronting the accused.

SISHA takes all calls seriously and acts promptly regarding allegations of any form of abuse.

All SISHA investigations are conducted with the offenders, reporter's and victim(s) identities undisclosed until the victim(s) can be rescued safely, and the offender arrested.

During this time, SISHA contacts an approved orphanage or other NGO to house the victim and the victim(s) family is contacted.

Sadly, volunteers who have witnessed child abuse in orphanages have confided that they held back from reporting the abuse because they were afraid the orphanage would just shut down and the kids would not be taken care of.

It is imperative that anyone witnessing child abuse, report the allegations to an NGO watchdog, which has the expertise in protecting the rights of victims of exploitation and oppression. Failing to report abuse leaves the victim helpless.

There are many volunteer tourism opportunities that contribute to sustainable development in Cambodia. SISHA encourages foreign visitors to research potential organisations and projects carefully and to consider the long-term impact of their volunteering and donations to the country and its people.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Erin LaCroix volunteered with South East Asia Investigations into Social and Humanitarian Activities (SISHA) in 2010. She is now SISHA's country director for Cambodia.

Source: Al Jazeera