By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Australia on Thursday launched a campaign to stop "orphanage tourism", which advocacy groups say has been used to exploit and traffic children in some of the world's poorest countries.
The United Nations and non-profit groups including Save the Children have warned that kids in countries like Cambodia have been taken from their homes and placed in orphanages to satisfy demand from tourists who want to spend time volunteering.
Australians are among the top donors for such orphanages, driving up a demand for these institutions, an Australian parliamentary inquiry heard last year as activists pushed the government to consider it a form of modern slavery.
"The number of orphanages in certain popular tourist destinations has increased dramatically yet many of the children living in them have at least one living parent," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on the campaign website.
"The worst orphanages retain and exploit children with the aim of making money. Orphanages should be an option of last resort for children," she added.
The government said its "Smart Volunteering" campaign will discourage citizens from taking part in "short-term, unskilled volunteering in overseas orphanages."
The government pledged to work with state and territorial administrations, as well as universities, to ensure that students do not "unwittingly" take part in programmes that exploit children.
The movement to stamp out orphanage tourism has gathered pace in Australia, with advocacy groups saying its popularity has seen a rising number of impoverished children taken from their homes.
In Cambodia, for instance, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said the number of orphanages is growing fast - even though about three out of four children living in them have at least one parent.
Cambodia last year launched a crackdown on bogus orphanages and said it aimed to return 3,500 children to their homes. Cambodian government data showed there were about 400 orphanages across the country, with over 16,000 children.
The increase in people taking up "voluntary tourism" has also exacerbated the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children across Southeast Asia, warned the Thailand-based charity ECPAT International.
"This is an emerging and worrying trend," its spokesman, Damian Kean, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We are aware of several cases, for example, in Cambodia, where traveling sex offenders were able to use volunteering at an orphanage as a mean for gaining access to victims."
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Jared Ferrie;
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