Sun, Jul 31, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Cambodia’s ‘orphan tourism’ sparks concern

Childcare experts say that volunteer teachers in impoverished country may be doing more harm than good

By Tang Chhin Sothy  /  AFP, SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA

A foreign volunteer teacher instructs Cambodian students at an orphanage in Siem Reap province, some 300km northwest of Phnom Penh.

Photo: AFP

Pictures of hundreds of former volunteers line the walls of a muddy courtyard in Cambodia’s tourist hub of Siem Reap, their faces once familiar to the orphans playing there but now long gone.

The colorful gallery at the Acodo orphanage illustrates a growing trend of holidaymakers donating their time and skills to children in the impoverished country — but experts fear they could be doing more harm than good.

Marissa Soroudi, a student in her 20s from New York, is one of the many volunteers teaching English at Acodo, near the famed temples of Angkor and home to more than 60 orphans between the ages of three and 18.

The young American, who pays US$50 a week to work at the orphanage, plans to stay for a few days before traveling on but she knows it is tough on the children to watch volunteers like her come and go.

“There are so many people volunteering that it’s kind of like, one leaves and another swoops in,” she said.

“They say better not to talk about it with them. Don’t say ‘I’m leaving in a week,’ don’t do any of that because then they get upset. Better to just not come.”

Short-term volunteers may have good intentions, but childcare experts say they are putting some of the most vulnerable children at risk.

“Constant change of caregivers gives emotional loss to children, constant emotional loss to already traumatized children,” Jolanda van Westering, a child protection specialist at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said. “And the constant exposure to strangers poses risks of harm, of violence and abuse, because we know that oftentimes volunteers come to an orphanage without having their backgrounds checked.”

As the gateway to the ancient temples of Angkor — which attract more than a million visitors a year — a steady stream of tourists passes through the sleepy riverside town.

And many want to do more than just sightsee in one of the region’s poorest nations.

On notice boards in hotels, cafes and souvenir shops, wide-eyed children stare from posters for schools and orphanages, encouraging travelers to donate time and money for their particular cause.

“Visitors see some poverty and they feel bad about it,” said Ashlee Chapman, a project manager with Globalteer, an organization that matches volunteers with local organizations.

“They want to do something,” she adds, saying they might visit a children’s project for a few hours, donate money and toys, “take a holiday snap and feel that they’ve contributed.”

As the so-called volunteer tourism sector flourishes, so too does the number of institutions housing children.

In the past six years, the number of orphanages in Cambodia has almost doubled to 269, housing some 12,000 children, according to UNICEF.

Friends International, a local organization that works with marginalized urban children and youths, says tourism has contributed to the increase.

Visiting orphanages has become a tourist “attraction” in big cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, said Marie Courcel, alternative care project manager at Friends International.

That in turn encourages the institutionalization of youngsters, many of whom are very poor but actually have at least one living parent, she said.

Only one in 10 of the orphanages are funded by the state, the rest rely on charitable contributions to survive.

At Siem Reap’s Acodo, huddled with the children in the shade of the only tree, Soroudi organizes the afternoon activity.

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