Sun, Oct 02, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Orphanage tourism: fears of child exploitation boom as Myanmar opens

As more foreigners visit the country, institutions that exploit children for money, as well as abuse are becoming more widespread, UNICEF says

By Oliver Holmes  /  The Guardian, DALA, Myanmar

Illustration: Louise Ting

There are several activities for tourists in the riverside villages south of Myanamar’s biggest city Yangon. Some take rickshaw rides around the fruit market or visit local pagodas. Others go to a private orphanage and spend the day unsupervised with a child.

“Tourists take the children out, to the zoo or downtown,” said the head of one orphanage of 16 children, a small wooden house built on stilts in flooded fields.

As Myanmar braces for mass arrivals following decades under military rule, UNICEF is warning against the spread of “orphanage tourism,” whereby the institutionalized care of minors turns into a business, with children from poor families recruited to pose as orphans and extract money from well-meaning foreigners.

Already firmly established in Cambodia and Indonesia, children separated from their families are exploited as fund-raising tools and, in some cases, their living conditions are kept deliberately unsightly to extract donations from visitors.

In its worse form, sexual predators have exploited the unrestricted access to children.

“Myanmar could see an exponential increase in the number of orphanages over the coming decade, especially in tourist destinations,” UNICEF Myanmar’s chief of child protection Aaron Greenberg said.

“Such an increase in orphanage care could violate the rights of tens of thousands of Myanmar [Burmese] children,” he added. “We need to act before orphanages dot the landscape.”

The country already has a culture of children from impoverished backgrounds being placed in government-run facilities, called training schools, where their parents believe they will receive a better education. And many thousands of others go to live in monasteries.

There is no data on how many unregistered private orphanages there are in the country, but guides and hotels report that tours are in demand.

One five-star hotel in Yangon had an orphanage visit on a stop for its river trip, but has since ceased.

Many of Myanmar’s visitors are socially minded backpackers or retirees wanting to help the developing country, donating their money to a worthy cause.

However, UNICEF says that nearly 100 years of research shows that even the best institutionalized care puts children at risk of abuse and makes them vulnerable to psychological and developmental disorders.

It says the levels of violence in orphanages are known to be higher than in families; children raised in orphanages are known to have problems making healthy social attachments in adulthood; are more likely than their peers, to have problems with substance abuse or come into conflict with the law; and children’s intellectual and emotional development is negatively impacted by orphanage care.

Even the word orphanage can be a misnomer, as in most cases of institutionalized care around the world the children still have one or both parents alive, UNICEF says.

Of the 17,322 children at registered orphanages in Myanmar, only 27 percent are actual orphans, UNICEF said.

UNICEF said that it fears that the growth of orphanage tourism could separate many more minors from their families.

The children at the facility visited by reporters appeared to be in good health, drawing pictures in books on the floor and playing games.

The owner, a Christian pastor, said he established the orphanage 18 years ago to help children from all over the country.

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