Good Intentions Don't Always Help

Dangers of Voluntourism for Children in South and South East Asia from a Police Perspective

Dorothea Czarnecki

Short-term volunteering or voluntourism is a growing and profitable segment of the tourism industry. But time and again, under the disguise of supposed "help", children get exploited for sexual purposes. Some cases have been reported in the media, many more have been recorded by the police.

Michael Carey Clemans, a57 year old US-American pilot, abused young girls in the Philippines, with a preference for girls from orphanages. In the process, he also produced images of the sexual abuse of children and had them distributed online. He paid an accomplice to get temporary custody of some of the children. In early 2018, Clemans was convicted in the US to a life-long sentence.

Within a period of nine years, Richard Huckle, a 30 year-old Brit, abused an estimated 200 girls and boys from vulnerable neighbourhoods in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He got in touch with the children as a volunteer of a Christian community that visited schools, orphanages and churches. He also abused a two-year-old girl during a home stay in Cambodia. In 2016, Huckle was sentenced to 23 years, also for owning, producing, and distributing images of sexual abuse of children.

Bishwa Pratap Acharya, founder and director of the orphanage “Happy Home” in Kathmandu, spent a year in investigative custody in 2014. He was accused of kidnapping, fraud, torture, and trafficking of children in order to fill his orphanage. The institution was financed by donations from foreign volunteers. Several of them reported having observed that the children in the orphanage were subjected to psychological and physical violence. In 2015, Acharya was discharged for want of evidence. He resumed operations of his institution.

Child protection in voluntourism as a challenge for the police

Cooperation is required between all key partners to address the child protection dangers resulting from uncontrolled voluntourism. This includes child rights organisations, the tourism sector, NGOs and relevant government partners, including police. To find out more about police responses to child protection in the voluntourism segment, in February 2018, criminologist Anita Dodds surveyed police representatives in South and South East Asia. In ten out of eleven countries who responded, police reported cases of sexual violence against children committed by volunteers (Myanmar, Laos, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, and the Philippines). Only in Singapore, which is strictly regulated, no such cases were known yet.

The police have been observing an increasing number of international volunteers working in orphanages, schools, play schools, day care centres for children and sports facilities. This leads to higher risks of children being exploited in these institutions, sexually and/or to raise donations. This business model leads to a vicious circle: more volunteers means more projects, and more projects leads to increasing dangers of cunning businessmen persuading parents to give their children to fake orphanages and other dubious projects.

The gap between the police and the tourism sector

As long as no crime has been committed, there are hardly any points of contact between the police and voluntourism operators. So far, there has also been little cooperation between the police and tourism authorities. Many of the police representatives interviewed are concerned that tourism ministries welcome any kind of tourists without placing importance on "quality", e.g. without checking police clearance certificates of volunteers who intend to work with children.

As more and more cases become known, the police are increasingly alert. The police representatives surveyed see their responsibility in preventing and fighting the exploitation of children in a volunteering context. As first tangible measures they have taken, they report that foreign volunteers have been checked, the local population has been sensitised, staff trainings for projects have been conducted, and investigations have been strengthened. However, they still see a lack of basic awareness amongst most of their police colleagues and other public players.

Police recommendations on child protection

Apart from training programs on investigation, the police welcome more exchange with tourism authorities and NGOs. There is also a need for more international cooperation in law enforcement, in order to become aware of travelling sex offenders before they enter the country. Prevention measures are seen as equally important. Local institutions need more information in order to recognise the risks resulting from having volunteers. They will then be able to develop comprehensive policies for the protection of children, or preferably entirely refrain from using foreign volunteers on a short-term basis. Finally, the police encourage the staff of orphanages, institutions and projects to report suspicious incidents, observations and offences to the local police. The children affected and their families should not hesitate to cooperate with the police, as it is the only way to stop the offenders. Finally, the police representatives surveyed fundamentally question if volunteer work with children in institutions makes any sense at all.

First steps towards a rethinking

Examples from Australia show that a rethinking is already happening in practice. The initiative Rethink Orphanagescalls upon tour operators not to include projects in their products which have volunteers work directly with children in institutions. As the first major voluntourism operators, since late 2017, Projects Abroad and World Challenge have now refrained from doing so. Another breakthrough is a decision by the Australian parliament: By the end of 2018 there will be a legislative reform according to which the trafficking of children and adolescents in orphanages and children's homes is classified as a modern form of slavery, and measures to prevent it need to be taken.

Dorothea Czarnecki, PhD, is a senior advisor on child protection and sexual exploitation of children. Since 2018, she has been vice-chairperson of the global network of ECPAT international with 104 member organisations in 93 countries. She works as a project officer with ECPAT Germany.

English translation: Christina Kamp

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