Australian volunteers in Nepal may be unknowingly contributing to a growing child trafficking industry that enables fake orphanages to secure revenue from foreigners while deliberately keeping children in destitute conditions.
Haushala Thapa, founder and director of Children and Youth First (CYF), a Kathmandu-based organisation that rescues children from corrupt and poorly run orphanages, says children in many of Nepal’s orphanages have become a commodity. “It’s a business, it is all profit making. It is portraying kids as a product, an object on the shelf,” Thapa says.
Philip Holmes, CEO of Freedom Matters says some orphanages are being set up specifically to channel income from tourists, and are using visiting tourists to help maintain their cover.
“A volunteer can bring a stamp of respectability, apparent transparency, or their language skills can be used for orphanage marketing e.g. websites,” Holmes explains. According to Holmes, those running the orphanages can also cash in on fundraising efforts.
“In the best case scenario [for those running the orphanages]volunteers can return to their parent countries full of goodwill and start fundraising for the orphanage. They might even set up a supporting charity. This can be really lucrative, especially if that charity is supporting sponsorships and capital projects,” he says.
Milan Phun* was one victim of this system, trafficked into a home at a young age and used by the owners of an orphanage to access income via volunteers, sponsorships and other funds from well meaning foreigners wanting to help Nepal’s children.
But Milan is not an orphan.
When Milan was seven his mother was approached by someone claiming to be an education agent and eventually paid them $300 for what she understood would be a boarding school education for her son.
But instead of a school, Milan and his sister were placed in an orphanage with links to the voluntourism industry. Milan was not to see his mother for six years.
During his years at the home, Milan and 14 other children were beaten and received little education — at one point the orphanage’s owners disappeared entirely, only to be replaced by new owners.
At the home, the children had many interactions with volunteers.
“We had volunteers coming all the time but we didn’t speak to them as we didn’t speak English. They came, they [played]with us, sometimes buying us chocolates and sweets, and then they [would go]away,” Milan says. New Matilda understands that one of these volunteers set up an NGO to help support the orphanage, a relationship that lasted around one year.
But conditions for the children remained poor and Milan says he and the other older boys were forced to steal food and money just to survive.
Martin Punaks is country director for Next Generation Nepal (NGN), an organisation that rescues and repatriates internally trafficked children. He told New Matilda he has received reports of orphanage managers asking traffickers to "bring them children" specifically because they have foreign donors willing to support their children's home.
Punaks says NGN has also seen evidence of orphanage owners deliberately keeping children in destitute conditions to attract more and higher levels of financial support.
“Charitable donations and volunteering are having the very opposite effect from that which was intended; they are keeping children away from their families, and sometimes keeping them in destitute conditions. Children have certainly become a lucrative poverty commodity,” Punaks says.
Punaks argues that poverty, lack of educational opportunities, changing laws, and the 10-year civil war which ended in 2006 have all contributed to the growth of the child-based voluntourism market. He says the number of children being trafficked is increasing.
Nepalese government statistics show that in 2010-2011 Nepal had 602 registered homes looking after 15,095 children, 58 per cent of whom had a living parent or parents. But NGOs say that number could be even higher. Punaks told NM a 2008 study by UNICEF and Terres Des Hommes put it at 85 per cent.
Having been warned by NGN, the Swiss, American and French embassies have since issued cautions to citizens wishing to volunteer with children in Nepal. The Australian Embassy in Nepal is yet to release any specific warning to Australian travellers wanting to volunteer with children. Figures compiled by the Nepalese Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation show 22,300 Australians visited Nepal in 2012. It's unclear how many Australians volunteered during this period as the government does not collect volunteering statistics.
A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australians planning on undertaking international volunteer placements should consult the Smartraveller Volunteering Overseas page.
“Volunteers should first consider donating to or working on projects that aim to develop and strengthen local communities, to create longer-term alternatives for children living in poverty,” a spokesperson said.
Though prices for volunteering vary, some companies have found the voluntourism market to be lucrative. One trekking agency told NM they charge up to $3600 per month for placements in organisations dealing with orphanages.
Holmes says orphanages can also be linked to non-government organisations with political affiliations. “Many NGOs and traffickers are politically affiliated as this offers a great deal of protection. The politicians get a kick-back,” he says.
Rescued at the age of 14, Milan is now 21 and working in the hospitality industry.
“Volunteers should be careful about where they are volunteering,” he cautions. “They should think about where they are going and understand the organisation. Sometimes I think about this and I get angry.”
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