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Before our bags were packed our egos were boosted. Our air was shrouded in arrogance. Friends, family and strangers fuelled our vanity: what we were doing was “inspirational” and “selfless”. The trip began to sound groundbreaking, like we were superheroes, and I bought it.
I bought it until I stepped off the bus.
We arrive at an orphanage, four hours north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The orphanage owner slouches on the steps, unimpressed by the 30-odd eager 16-year-olds on a school trip from Australia. Care packs are passed down a conga line finishing at her feet as she sits, fiddling with the rings on her fingers. We take a seat on the sports field, an oval of dirt where the cigarette butt to grass ratio is uncanny. There are no children, they’re “busy” and we aren’t allowed to see them. The closest we’ve come is to two Cambodian ladies ushering young ones from the dining hall to a wooden hut as we pulled up. This seems very far removed from the orphanage I painted in my head.
We are told that under no circumstances are we to enter the buildings. If you walk close enough though, the stench of stale urine and faeces is enough to keep you at bay. We hear no laughing or crying, no children talking or playing.
I watch in shock as my teacher defies the rules. Walking up to a window, one arm covering her mouth and nose. It takes only a few minutes before she turns around, tears stinging her eyes. She brushes past us, dodging our questions, voice cracking as she calls our headteacher to the side. I strain my ears trying to listen to their conversation. I have no idea what’s in the building and I resist the urge to look. For the first time I question why we’re here. Are we helping the orphans, or are we fuelling their demise?
Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, boasts an estimated industry worth of $2.6 billion per year. Tourists frequent countries with caring hearts and good intentions but unfortunately their money and labour may only provide a band-aid solution to a much deeper wound. A defining issue within voluntourism is young children in residential care facilities. In recent years the morals and ethics have struck controversy as money-hungry “orphanages” have provided the perfect scam for do-good travellers looking to offset their privilege.
In 2017 UNICEF identified 639 residential care facilities housing 35,374 children and young people aged 18-24 years old in Cambodia alone. It was also found that of the children living in care institutions, almost one third are in an unregulated arrangement and are therefore not on the radar of the Cambodian government. With such a large number of institutions left unmonitored, it’s easy to see why Cambodia has become a poster child for voluntourism and how difficult it can be to differentiate the fraudulent schemes from the worthwhile causes.
It provides the perfect breeding ground for corruption, subpar living conditions and the overall neglect of the wellbeing and safety of children. Tourists, now more than ever, are falling for this trap, seeing a child’s smiling face rather than looking at the facts.
It is not uncommon for children found living in residential care facilities to have disabilities or HIV/AIDS, be in need of detoxification services or be victims of child trafficking. Many facilities are ill-equipped to handle such diverse issues. There are also poor staff-to-child ratios, unclean facilities and overcrowding. Children sleep on crowded, soiled mattresses where skin infections and illnesses are invited to spread and medical conditions are often left untreated. Some establishments have been rumoured to deprive children of basic needs to appear poorer. Others have enforced child labour to make souvenirs and train orphans to perform cultural dances to entertain tourists.
I have been waiting four years for this trip. On sign-up day my feet were itching. I’d set three calendar reminders and countless alarms; I didn’t want to miss my chance. I believed this would be the first of many service trips. I wanted to help people and support those less fortunate, however I could.
Exhausted from the Cambodian heat, we retreat to the dining hall. My eyes trace photos of smiling orphans hugging past students, holding their hands and playing games. There are messages of love and hope from names I recognise. My older brother’s friend wrote, “I miss you already, I’ll be back soon!”
My teacher spent the day bargaining with the owner, pleading for us to see the orphans. We’re finally called outside and are instantly swarmed by children. They sprint from behind a building, grinning from ear to ear as they steal us away one by one. They’re covered in school and bedsores; for a moment we hesitate, but before long, games of football and ‘paddy cake’ begin.
This last hour provides a glimmer of hope: perhaps the lasting impression most would leave with. As long as the children are smiling and having fun, it’s worth it right? It looks like a postcard, the children standing at the gate waving our buses goodbye. As we pull away from the dirt driveway the guilt hits me again and we head to our next tourist attraction.