Calls mount to stop orphanages exploiting poor children to lure money, tourists

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After Australian lawyer Kate van Doore set up an orphanage in Nepal and took over another in Uganda she was astounded to find that the children she thought she was helping were not orphans at all.

They were “paper orphans” - children given fake identities after being taken from their families and placed in orphanages to attract funding from foreign donors, volunteers and tourists.

“The kids started saying to us, ‘Can I go home to mum now?’,” said van Doore who runs the charity Forget Me not.

“It was devastating to discover these children had been exploited for profit. I was horrified and determined to fix it,” said van Doore, who spoke about orphanage trafficking at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Trust Conference on Wednesday.

About 80 percent of an estimated 8 million children in orphanages or other institutions are not orphans, according to Lumos, a charity founded by “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, which aims to have no children living in institutions by 2050.

Traffickers have worked out that orphanages are good business and can attract large donations, leading to a global boom in orphanages, from Cambodia to Haiti, which often lure children from poor rural families with promises of an education.

Van Doore said the female pastor running the Ugandan orphanage had given the children fake identities after promising to educate them but kept them in a “pitiful condition” to boost funding. Many had malaria and were malnourished.

In Kathmandu, Forget Me Not discovered the orphanage had shown them fraudulent death certificates for the children’s parents and told the children to lie.

“There were terrible stories of families coming to the gate and the child watching from the window as they were turned away,” said van Doore, an international child rights lawyer and academic at Griffith Law School in Australia.

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Forget Me Not has since helped rescue hundreds of children from orphanages in Nepal. It has reunited many with their parents and is caring for others while their families are found.

Van Doore is now calling for an end to orphanages which she says cause irreparable harm to children and fuel trafficking, pushing the Australian and British governments to lead on this.

Trafficking survivor Joseph Mwuara, 20, told Trust Conference how an orphanage owner near his home village in Kenya took him from his grandmother, promising to educate him.

“It was terrible. We had to do a lot of work to get food. If we failed we were denied food as punishment,” he said.

When people visited the orphanage with donations the children were made to entertain them, but the gifts they brought for the children were sold.

Mwuara said the children were forced to milk the orphanage owner’s cows, clean the sheds and till surrounding farmland.

“They used a lot of physical violence. They beat one boy and broke his leg,” added Mwuara, who now raises awareness about orphanage trafficking and mentors children leaving care.

“Everybody at the orphanage had a family. We needed love.”

The U.S. State Department first identified orphan trafficking as a form of modern slavery in a 2017 report.

It said the industry was fueled by demand from tourists to visit or volunteer in orphanages, often for a fee or donation.

Many orphanages are set up in tourist spots. Some make children perform shows, send them out to beg, or force them into labor or sexual exploitation, it said. A lack of screening of volunteers places children at risk of sexual abuse.

The constant rotation of volunteers also creates serious attachment problems, which impact their relationships as adults.

Experts say even well-run orphanages are detrimental to children’s psychological, cognitive and physical development.

Snezana Vuckovic, 24, who grew up in orphanages in Serbia, said she was raped by a teacher, bullied and beaten.

“We were hit. We were really tortured,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the conference. “I still wake up in the night crying and shaking. I push people away from me.”

Forget Me Not and Lumos want to redirect funding from orphanages into family and community-based care for children.

Australia, which is due to introduce a Modern Slavery Act this month, is the first country to recognize orphanage trafficking as a form of modern slavery and will put pressure on travel companies to end orphanage tourism.

Van Doore said she is also in talks with British officials.

“If people knew the harm they caused by funding, volunteering and visiting orphanages it would have a real impact. We need to get that message out,” she said.