Responsible VolunteeringStaff Blog

Orphanage Volunteering

Volunteering in orphanages seems, at face value, to be a selfless act of charity that can only do good.

Sadly, this is very rarely the case, so I would like you to take a few minutes to read about the reality of being an orphanage volunteer.

So, you want to give back and make a difference, and you decide that the biggest impact you can make is volunteering at an orphanage overseas.

Your initial Google search has revealed dozens of organisations, all advertising orphanage volunteer opportunities abroad.

They tell you what an amazing difference you will make. How desperate the orphans are for your help and how ethical and responsible the orphanage is.

But is that really the truth?

In this article, I’ll answer your main question “Should I volunteer at an orphanage abroad?” and we will go through the following important points:

  1. An overview of the issues of volunteering at an orphanage overseas.
  2. Why is it bad to volunteer in an orphanage overseas?
  3. The rise in fake orphanages, the scams, child trafficking and for-profit orphanages.
  4. Real life stories from orphanages in my experience.
  5. Alternatives to orphanage volunteering.
  6. Is it ever OK to volunteer at an orphanage?

An overview of the issues of volunteering at an orphanage overseas.

There are several major issues that you should consider before signing up to volunteer at an orphanage overseas.

  1. Are you qualified to care for very vulnerable children ? And the emotional issues that they may have while living in residential care?
  2. Is the orphanage real ? Or is it a for profit organisation whose main objective is to make money out of your good will?
  3. Does the orphanage have a strong child protection policy that is implemented for the safety of the children?

Institutes that care for children without parents have a very important role in society. The children often suffer from serious emotional issues and must rely on the institution for all their needs.

You may think that they need all the support that they can get, and your help will be vital. But do you have the skills to care for vulnerable children? Do you understand the subtleties of their culture or even speak their language?

Is the Orphanage Real?

If you are ready to sign up and volunteer to work at an orphanage, how do you know if the orphanage is real? Unfortunately, there are many orphanages that are for profit organisations, often involved in child trafficking from disadvantaged communities. This is unbelievable but true! I have personally visited many orphanages around the world and I have seen those doing amazing work. The best ones try to integrate the children back into their extended families and communities. The worst ones keep the children looking desperate and poor and ask them to lie about having parents. All to garnish sympathy and ultimately donations from unsuspecting tourists and volunteers.

Children in orphanages can be considered amongst the most vulnerable in society. It is extremely important that they are protected and kept safe from people that would do them harm. Just consider the scenario… a strange person comes to your home and offers their help as a volunteer. They offer to feed your child to bathe them and put them to bed at night. I am sure you would be very defensive and not invite the volunteer into your home. Why would it therefore be acceptable for this to happen to children without parents there to protect them?

Why is it bad to volunteer in an orphanage overseas?

Orphanages are regulated differently depending upon what country they are in. In many developed countries, the orphanages are run by the government, major charities or religious organisations. If these childcare projects accepted volunteer help, you would need to be qualified for your role, background checked and likely committed to a long-term role.

In under developed countries, orphanage care is often carried out by the government, international charities and religious organisations as well as many independent orphanages. Many countries will have government rules that regulate these care homes. Unfortunately, in some countries, no such regulations exist or if they do, are ever enforced. This means that these very vulnerable children are held in the care and regulations of one director whose motivations may not be as expected. In these poorest of countries where you may think the volunteer support is needed most, it is likely the worst place to volunteer.

What kinds of scenarios are you putting yourself into?

Let’s say you plan to volunteer in Cambodia at an orphanage. You have no relevant skills or experience of the role advertised by the volunteer organisation, but they say that is not a problem. You arrive in Cambodia and settle yourself into the volunteer role of caring for the orphaned children. It is time for the children to be washed and bathed, no problem for you as you have younger brothers and sisters. But there is an older volunteer working with you and it makes you uncomfortable seeing him wash and photograph the children. What do you do, confront him, talk to the staff, the director? Should you, the volunteers and the children be put in this situation?

What happens if a vulnerable child breaks down in front of you, there are no staff around as it is your role to care for the children. They are bawling in a foreign language and getting very distressed. This child is separated from parents and has been removed from their local community and extended family. The child becomes violent and you and all the other children are now in danger. You have no skills or experience on how to handle this, you are not even sure what is happening as you do not understand the language.

One final reason for it being bad to volunteer at an orphanage overseas is the huge increase in for profit orphanages. The rise in for profit orphanages has been fuelled by the increase in good hearted people wanting to help in developed countries. Some unscrupulous people have started orphanages to make a profit from them. Once again, unbelievable that this happens, but true! More on this in the next section…

The rise in fake orphanages, the scams, child trafficking and for-profit orphanages.

In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of orphanages in countries like Cambodia, Nepal and Uganda. This has been fuelled by the number of people wanting to volunteer and support orphanages in these countries.

Although the number of orphanages has increased in these countries, the number of orphans has not. How is this possible? To understand this takes a leap from normal, logical thinking. Unscrupulous people want to make a personal profit from the many volunteers and foreigners wanting to support orphanages, so they start their own private orphanage. Unfortunately for them, there are now more orphanages than abandoned children and orphans. What can they do to access the money from foreign donors and volunteers?

The answer… trafficking children.

They go to poor, remote villages in disadvantaged communities and promise parents that they will care for, feed, and educate their children in the city. They are also often offered money to seal the deal. The parents think this will be best for their children as the hard sell and hard cash has convinced them.

Once at the orphanages, the children are no longer allowed to contact their family. They must now play the role of an orphan to convince the volunteers and donors to secure more money for the orphanage owner’s personal wealth.

These disadvantaged children have been trafficked away from their communities and family. International volunteers and donors are then tricked into thinking these children have been rescued and saved.

The children are always kept in bad conditions for two reasons. Firstly, to secure more donations and sympathy. Secondly, the money donated is never used to improve the lives of the children. The fundamental reason for this fake orphanage is to make a profit for the owner.

It is unbelievable that 80% of children living in orphanages have at least one parent.

Real life stories from orphanages in my experience.

It is hard not to feel sorry for the children and want to help. I recall a case in Cambodia where a good-hearted tourist decided to buy the children beds and mattresses as they were sleeping on the floor. She did not want to give cash as that could be used inappropriately. She went with the orphanage owner to a shop and purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of beds and mattresses. They took them to the orphanage and everyone was happy.

Unusually, weeks later, she went back to the orphanage. The owner would have presumed that being a tourist, she had left Cambodia already. On arrival she noticed that the children were all sleeping on the floor still and the beds and mattresses were gone. What had happened, how is this possible?

Well, the orphanage owner had returned all the goods back to the shop and got the money back. This is a very common scam for those donors not wanting to give cash. Another issue for the owner is that it is difficult to get more and more donations if he provides the donations to the kids. The perception is that if the kids have nothing, then more people would donate. If the kids are fed well, looked after, and well dressed, then people won’t give money.

In another case, the families of the trafficked children started coming to visit their children when they were outside the orphanage. This was an 80km round trip for the parents. They were even bringing food as the children said they were not fed enough and were always hungry at the orphanage. The orphanage did not allow the parents to see their kids, so they had to see sneak around just to see them and spend time with them.

The children wanted to be with their families.

The community eventually got together and petitioned the orphanage to be allowed to see their children. A large crowd of family members gathered outside the orphanage to demand access to their own kids. The orphanage eventually agreed to allow the parents to 30 minutes with their children. The same day, after all the children seeing their parents, the children announced to the orphanage owner that they all wanted to leave and return home. With all the community there, the children insisting they wanted to leave and even soldiers now present, the orphanage had no choice but to let the children go home back to their families.

Here is part of the blog that the orphanage owner wrote after the children left to go back to their families:

As hard as it is for us to understand – they were glad to be going back to their old lives.
No running water, no clean safe drinking water or healthy, varied & nutritious food.
No clean beds, laundered clothes & shoes. They will no longer have support, and care or English classes.
No more travel and experiences like that i.e. their beach holiday!
To say we were all feeling betrayed and shell-­
shocked is an understatement!

I guess the orphanage owner underestimated that very few things can replace the love and care of a family. This is a real-life example of why the expansion in orphanages in places like Cambodia, Nepal and Uganda is a bad thing. Even though the children came from a poor life with no clean drinking water, no varied food, no beds or laundered clothes, no English classes or beach holidays. Ultimately their desire was to be back in their community with their parents.

Aussies scammed by fake orphans scandal

For more information, you can read about the Australians that were duped into donating more than $480,000 to a charity scam that coerced children into a fake orphanage.

The Australians were fooled into thinking they were supporting Nepalese orphans when, in fact, the children were not orphans at all.

Alternatives to orphanage volunteering.

You have now read some real-life case studies about how bad volunteering at an orphanage can be, but you still want to help in a meaningful way. What are the alternatives to volunteering at an orphanage to help these children?

As you have seen, the children living in rural communities in Cambodia lack many things, clean water, good education, healthy and varied food. This is why it is easy to traffic children to the city with a promise of providing all these things.

An alternative to moving children to the city away from their family, friends and community is to provide those things they are lacking in their villages. At Globalteer, volunteers work to provide water filters to give clean drinking water to rural villages. At our rural projects, we also provide additional education as well as classes in English. Where necessary we also provide additional nutrition to ensure the children have a balanced and healthy diet.

By working in the communities, we can help prevent child trafficking. The community is less inclined to sell their children on a promise of a better life if things are going well in their village for the children. The children and community are also aware of what child trafficking means through education and are less likely to fall for the false promises.
As an alternative to volunteering in an orphanage on your gap year or career break, why not volunteer at a rural project to keep the children at home with their families.

See what difference our volunteers make by working at rural projects, supporting communities and stopping the separation of families.

Is it ever OK to volunteer at an orphanage?

The reasons these practices are wrong are well documented and are being addressed at national and international levels. The Australian Government has even stated that 'orphanage trafficking is modern-day slavery'.

In the context of volunteering in residential homes for children, we believe that the following policies must be followed in order to protect vulnerable children:

  1. Volunteer organisations should only work with institutions that are actively seeking family-focused solutions for the children in their care. Family solutions are only used when there is no possible danger to the child.
  2. All volunteers working with children in any capacity must be background checked.
  3. The physical, emotional and psychological well-being of children living in any kind of institutionalised care home should only be left to professionals who are sufficiently qualified to take on such a responsibility. Intervention by unqualified volunteers should be the last resort in exceptional circumstances.
  4. Volunteer organisations and unqualified volunteers should only work with government registered and regulated institutions. And only in countries where adequate legislation is in place - and enforced - to protect children in care.
  5. Volunteers should only be permitted to work in roles that do not allow any kind of physical or emotional attachment to be made. Volunteers only work under the supervision of suitably qualified permanent project staff.