In Nepal there are links between voluntourism at orphanages and child trafficking. The links are not just theoretical they are real. It is happening. Children are being trafficked to meet the demands of volunteers and other donors prepared to pay to “help” Nepal’s orphans.
This is not to say there aren’t real orphans in Nepal needing outside support, there are, but figures from UNICEF and Terres Des Hommes from a 2008 report indicate that nearly 85 percent of children in the developing country’s orphanages have a living parent or parents. Nepali government figures for 2011 put the figure at 58 percent, but regardless this means over 50 percent of children in Nepal’s orphanages have a living parent or parents.
How well-intentioned volunteers wanting to help plays into this is simple – money.
Milan Phun*, now 21, was trafficked into an orphanage, when his mother paid an “education agent” $300US to place himself and his sister into a boarding school. Milan and his sister would not see their mother for another seven years.
Milan says he and his sister received an education for one year and then the owners of the orphanage left.
After a period without any caregivers an elderly couple stayed for approximately two years and then, they also left. This pattern was repeated throughout his six years in the orphanage before being rescued by another organisation.
During the periods without care givers the children had to steal to survive.
“ When I think about before I get angry. They just left us. All together there were 14 of us with no food, no school, they left us. They are very bad.”
Education was intermittent during the time Milan spent in the orphanage dependent on whether they had carers, volunteers or foreign donors funding their organisation. After being rescued Milan, though nearly 15 years old, was placed into a year one class at school.
“We had volunteers coming all the time but we didn’t speak to them as we didn’t speak English. They came, they play with us sometimes buying us chocolates and sweets and then they are going away.”
During the periods the orphanage received funding Milan says the children still suffered.
“They hurt me and the kids. I remember one day because my school bag was torn and my shoes were torn and I said I did not want to go to school because of my torn bag. He beat me badly.”
At the age of 14 Milan and the other children in the orphanage were rescued.
Non-government agencies working within Nepal define this as a form of child trafficking as the children essentially have become a commodity.
“My Mum brought me here with high hopes, to have a bright future. She had to pay money for that good future, but they didn’t (provide it). She sent money but they didn’t help us. We were a business, ” Milan says.
Milan says before being rescued he, his sister and the other children in the orphanage, didn’t get to live their stories.
“I lost my time. Volunteers should be careful about were they are volunteering. They should think about where they are going and understand the organisation. Sometimes I think about this and I get angry.”
Australians and others volunteering in Nepal are inadvertently contributing to this exploitation and the internal trafficking of children within Nepal to meet the growing demands of the voluntourism industry.
Over the last decade volunteering has become a paid for experience as part of a ” feel good” travel adventure. Volunteering gives a sense of purpose to travel which some cynically view as escapism from the career treadmill rather than an experience which adds depth and character to a person.
The commodification of volunteering in to a “pay for service” business, especially when it intersects with children, has made said children a product.
Haushala Thapa from Children and Youth First, a Kathmandu based NGO which homes rescued children says volunteering in Nepal’s orphanages and children’s homes are becoming big business because people are prepared to pay large amounts of money to volunteer for short periods of time.
“It is a business, it is all profit-making. It is portraying kids as a product, as an object on the shelf.”
Tim Smith* whom has worked on children’s issues in Nepal for over a decade says the growing market around volunteering with children is a form of poverty pornography.
“Partially, it can be put down to human nature and an almost instinctive sense of guilt many people have when travelling less developed parts of the world. We want the excitement of that exotic trip, but have learned that it’s possible to make ourselves feel better about it all if we can tie ‘helping out’ into our being there. We should probably be surprised that there aren’t plane-loads more of well-intentioned jetting off for an unintentional dose of poverty porn.”
Martin Punaks, country director for Next Generation Nepal, a non-government organization which rescues and repatriates trafficked children, says voluntourism in Nepal has followed a similar trajectory as it has in other developing countries.
He says poverty, lack of educational opportunities, changing laws that allowed more institutions to conduct adoptions, and the ten-year civil war which ended in 2006 all acting as contributing factors to the growth in the voluntourism market around children.
“Parents began to send their children to what they perceived were safer and better conditions, and they were often persuaded to do so by traffickers claiming that they could provide these things to children, when in fact they were exploiting the vulnerability of families for personal profit. Although the conflict is now long over, people continue to send their children away through traffickers, believing that they are actually sending their children to safe boarding schools, ” he says.
Punaks says the numbers of internally trafficked children is increasing.
“Their numbers have grown and continue to grow, (with) the availability and willingness of paying orphanage voluntourists and well-intentioned charities, and the revenue this brings in.”
He says Next Generation Nepal (NGN) has received reports of orphanage managers in Nepal asking traffickers to “bring them children” specifically because they have foreign donors willing to support their children’s home.
Smith says children are being intentionally trafficked to meet the growing demands of the voluntourism market.
“The existence of a seemingly endless supply of volunteers willing to pay considerable amounts for the ‘volunteer experience’ has encouraged the business aspect of ensuring there are enough orphans to meet volunteering demands to veer in the direction of greed and exploitation.”
Thapa says the numbers of children coming into the system are because of the high levels of poverty within Nepal.
UNICEF figures for Nepal indicate 25 percent of the population live on less than $1.25 US (2006-2011) per day with Gross National Income sitting at $540 US (2011) per annum.
“One family has five or six kids and they have no income, they live off farming, that is their main job. When they have six or so kids they can only afford to look after two or three so what happens is suddenly somebody comes and tells them you know what you have six kids why don’t you send three to this organisation and they will take care and you will only have to take care of three.”
She says for Nepali families this can be a good option, as they believe that the children they send away or pay to go to into a children’s organisation will have a good life.
“This is trafficking as money is involved. People only think when they traffic girls or kids to another country or when they are used. But I feel is that is the biggest trafficking issue because there is money involved and parents never hear about their child anymore even if the child is in Kathmandu.”
Smith says homes run by the less scrupulous often operate with the understanding that the more pity they can generate in the heart of any visitors, the better it is in terms of their fund-raising requirements.
NGN has also seen evidence of orphanage owners deliberately keeping children in destitute conditions to attract more and higher levels financial donations.
Punaks says “Reports such as these suggest that charitable donations and volunteering are having the very opposite effect from that which was intended; they are keeping children away from their families, and sometimes keeping them in destitute conditions. Children have certainly become a lucrative poverty commodity.”
Dutch tourist Pien* ( last name withheld ) says her “orphanage” volunteering experience made it immediately clear that the focus was on money.
“The six children in the home all had parents.”
She says on her arrival to the Chitwan region the orphanage owner refused to let herself and other volunteers enter the home until they paid their volunteering fees of $6 US per day.
“First thing on arrival and he took me straight to the ATM.”
Pien says the children had prepared stories for the volunteers.
“I could see her thinking. She said she had no parents but I knew she did as someone had told me.” Pien says the child later told her about her family.
Pien says that the quality and quantity of food the children received, the general conditions and the atmosphere at the home were inconsistent and low .The one staff member on site doing the best she could with the limited amount of food provided. She says the home’s owner declined extra food offered to the children by the paying volunteers.
“It is just a big business. I don’t know what he (the owner) does with the money but he certainly isn’t spending it on the children”.
Pien says she would not recommend volunteering in Nepal especially in pay to volunteer programmes.
“ After my experience I don’t really trust anyone. I am not going to volunteer again, never again in Nepal. I would not recommend it for anyone.”
After her placement and giving the home a poor recommendation on an online volunteering website the owner threatened her via email.
“God will never forgive you. We pry (sic) to the god everyday for your bad life. Since you bad comment nobody contact . The situation of children is critical. No food at the centre, no volunteer. How can we run our organization. You have to take all response (sic) of these all problems otherwise we will never forgive you. Once again we pray to the God for your bad life.You are not a human you animal (bullshit)”
Prices to volunteer within Nepal can vary from genuine volunteering for no payment, low fees to cover basic accommodation and food to around $3600 AU for a month through a high-end international volunteer program. Tourism and trekking agencies are known to charge up to $690 AU per month for placements within an orphanage type organisation.
A tourism agent admitted that friends who had set up associations related to children and volunteering were doing “very well.”
Thapa says ideally volunteering should be free but paying up to $5 US per day to cover accommodation and three meals a day during your volunteering period is a reasonable cost.
* Name changed
Aspects of this story first appeared in New Matilda March 4.