Orphanage Tourism: Slavery Hidden In Plain Sight

A historic modern slavery bill in Australia is being praised as the country takes the lead in ending the practice.

Australia has become the  first country in the world to recognise the popular tourism practice of visiting overseas orphanages is forcing young children into slavery in many cases.

The legislation forms part of a wider recognition of the impacts volunteer tourism or 'voluntourism' can have on developing overseas nations, with claims many children in these orphanages are not orphans, but were forced to work and solicit donations.

A June report from the US State Department said "an estimated 80 to 90 percent of them have at least one living parent."

"Many orphanages use the children to raise funds by forcing them to perform shows for or interact and play with potential donors to encourage more donations," the report said.

"Orphanages have also kept children in poor health to elicit more sympathy and money from donors."

Rebecca Nhep, senior technical advisor for Better Care Network and co-founder of ReThink Orphanages, said determining the extent of the problem is difficult, but it's a popular activity for school groups, churches and charities.

Falsifying identities of these children is also a form of modern slavery, Nhep told 10 daily.

Janey Kennedy, who travelled to two orphanages in Vietnam as part of a trip organised by her Victorian high school several years ago, is now an advocate for sustainable tourism and volunteering.

She told 10 daily she remembered the first orphanage visit as being "informal" with classmates given "free rein" with the children and told to help staff if needed.

An orphanage in Vietnam. Image: Getty

"We were unqualified 16-year-olds, so we were pretty much just playing with the kids and holding the little ones and some of us helped with feeding," Kennedy said.

"It was a lot more for tourists than for the children, staff or local community."

The second orphanage was more organised, she said, with a representative spending much of the time explaining how the organisation worked.

An orphanage in Cambodia. Image: Getty

She had a lot of questions after returning from the trip over how money was distributed around the charity, with so many tourists visiting each year.

"It's hard to have conversations with people on this topic, when people actually have really good intentions behind their visit".

ReThink Orphanages has been pushing to have travel companies recognise modern slavery within their practices.

Nhep said the number of people visiting orphanages in countries like Cambodia can be in the tens of thousands each year.

"Busloads of tourists arrive daily at some orphanages to watch the children put on a show or volunteer for a day," she said.

"These are now recognised in the definition of the modern slavery act."

The legislation will force companies who turnover more than $100 million annually to report their practices on ending slavery within their supply chains.

Nhep admitted some continue to perpetuate the problem because it is profitable.

"When we tell companies that it doesn't actually contribute to children's care in a positive way and puts them in risk of being trafficked, most companies respond to that."

Tourists sometimes visit orphanages to see children put on daily shows. Image: Getty

World Challenge is one company which has banned the practice within their organisation.

General Manager of the Asia Pacific division, Mark Walters told 10 daily they recently made the decision to remove orphanage visits from their two to four week expedition program after working with ReThink Orpahanges.

"It was the right thing to do," Walters said.

"We stopped and reflected on our practice."

He said participants now work on projects targeting sustainability in health and sanitation.

This included laying pipes and building toilets in local schools.

World Challenge has also written curriculum for Australian schools on responsible volunteering, and run workshops prior to trips to encourage participants to be "ethically responsible."

An orphanage in Cambodia. Image: Getty

Kennedy said while voluntourism had a long way to go, young people shouldn't shy away from working to help overseas communities.

"Responsible volunteering overseas can be done well and it can be very beneficial," she said.