Earlier today I received a tweet from my friend Sallie, from the award-winning volunteer organisation people and places, asking for my help. She had been in contact with the children’s charity, Next Generation Nepal (NGN). Following the recent devastating earthquake donations have been flooding in to help Nepal. These donations are desperately needed, tragically though, there is a dark side sparked by this generosity. NGN are already seeing, the first signs of child trafficking to dubious orphanages.

As Martin Punkas, Country Director Next Generation Nepal, warns:

“Since the civil war in Nepal, traffickers have preyed on vulnerable families in rural areas, offering their children safety and an education in boarding schools or children’s homes in Kathmandu. In practice the children have been used as poverty commodities to raise money from well-meaning but naïve donors and volunteers who support these ‘orphanages’ in the misplaced belief they are helping genuine orphans, or at least children who have no other choice than to be there.

We are now deeply concerned that the earthquake will accelerate this trend beyond our worst nightmares. Aid money is flooding in to the country, children’s homes are offering hundreds of more places for children, and not enough is being done in the rural areas to stop the flow of children away from their families into profit-making orphanages.

NGN is doing what it can to try and establish our own “gate-keeping project” in the worst affected district of Sindhupalchowk – this will warn families about the dangers of trafficking, and reunify displaced children. But the odds are stacked against us. We would ask people to consider carefully before volunteering or donating funds to a post-earthquake Nepali children’s home in Kathmandu. Without realizing it, such support may be indirectly harming children. If people want to help the Nepal relief effort, they should donate funds to reputable relief and development agencies which rebuild damaged rural communities and economies, and keep children and families together.”

Colorful Tibetan flags fly high at the UNESCO site Swayambhunath Temple, that has destroyed by the earthquake.

Above: Colorful Tibetan flags fly high at the UNESCO site Swayambhunath Temple, that has destroyed by the earthquake. 

How do fake orphanages work?

I have written before about orphanage tourism but to recap, well-meaning volunteers pay large amounts of money to give their time to help look after children in orphanages in countries such as Cambodia and Nepal. These volunteers rarely have any training in working with vulnerable children. They arrive, make bonds with the children, then leave. New volunteers arrive, make bonds with the children, then leave. And so it goes on. No, genuine, responsibly run orphanage would accept unqualified, short-term volunteers like this.

Not only do the ever-changing faces of volunteers make insecure children, feel even more unloved, the amount of people wanting to volunteer in this way and prepared to pay highly for the privilege, is fuelling the creation of more orphanages. And for this they need more so-called orphans.

Sometimes poor parents struggling to feed their families are tempted to hand over their children to people promising to give their child a good education, a chance of a better life. The reality though is that the children go to bogus orphanages.

Barbara Weibel wrote an excellent post about sham orphanages and dubious volunteering practices in Nepal.

“My guide, who lived in the village, warned, ‘Maybe 75% of orphanages are not real.’ Barbara explains. She continues “He told me about a group of Polish tourists that had established an online relationship with an orphanage prior to travelling to Nepal. Upon arrival, they hired my guide to help purchase bulk food and supplies, in addition to a cash donation they planned to make. Although he warned of potential fraud, the Poles insisted that this particular orphanage was legitimate. Several weeks later, long after the donors had returned home, my guide stuffed his pockets with chocolates and returned to the orphanage. As the children clamored around him, fighting for candy, he quizzed them. What had they been given to eat over the past few weeks? Had they received new clothes? School supplies? None of the children had new clothes or supplies and they had been fed only dahl bhat (rice and lentil bean stew), as usual. He later learned that all the fresh foodstuffs and a good deal of the bulk non-perishables had been sold off, with the cash distributed among the orphanage owners.”

You can read more about her experience and the scams she learnt about in her excellent post, Paid Voluntouring and Volunteering Scams in Nepal.

Tempted to volunteer in Nepal?

Sallie Grayson, People and Places Programme Director, told me “I have found it incredibly difficult not to jump on a plane to go to the help of our friends in Nepal – but I am not a disaster expert – our role at people and places is to support the experts on the ground and when and as the time is right start recruiting the volunteer help that will be surely be needed in the future to help Nepal rebuild itself.

So I understand just how the thousands of well-meaning people out there want to volunteer in Nepal – particularly with children – in orphanages.

In the coming weeks we will be bombarded with images of ‘orphans’ and we will be encouraged to volunteer.

BUT how will we know that the children are genuine orphans. Yes many have been separated from their families and emergency crisis centres will be needed for these children – but they will need volunteers who are able to stay a long time and those volunteers will need hard trauma skills.

BUT orphanages are for many – a business – children are bought from parents and ‘sold’ to volunteers nearly daily in Nepal – how can you be sure that the orphanage that accepts you – despite the fact you have no vulnerable child care skills – is not simply a business scam – there are some bad people out there.

So please – think very hard – your wish to do something for the children of Nepal may be the very thing that causes them more harm than the earthquake.”

What can you do to help?

If you haven’t already, please consider donating to one of the reputable organisations working to help the people of Nepal. Here’s some links to just a few of them.

Next Generation Nepal

 Oxfam Nepal Appeal

Plan UK Nepal Appeal

You can also learn more about the ongoing orphanage crisis in Cambodian at Orphanages.no

Help raise awareness

Many people are unaware of the pitfalls of volunteering in orphanages in countries such as Nepal and Cambodia. Please help raise awareness by sharing this post across social media networks.

Featured photo credit: Thanks to Laurel from Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel Blog.
Swayambhunath Temple photo credit: Thanks to Nellie, from WildJunket.

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