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Hope is on the horizon for tackling orphanage trafficking

by Chloe Setter | Lumos Foundation
Friday, 29 March 2019 13:37 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Children watch an afternoon downpour at the SOS village for orphans and children from broken homes in Sanankoroba, Mali.

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Countries are moving to block the exploitation of children in orphanages - the vast majority of whom have at least one living parent

It’s hard to believe there are people in the world who deliberately recruit children into orphanages in order to make money. Yet running an orphanage can be a lucrative trade. Vulnerable 'orphans' attract funding, donations and international volunteers.

This phenomenon, commonly referred to as 'orphanage trafficking' means that children are deprived of their family and exploited for profit. Some are also sexually abused or forced into labour or begging. Others are sold on for illegal adoption or servitude. Some are even used for their organs - or simply disappear.

It comes as a shock to most people that around 80 percent of the more than eight million children in orphanages are not orphans and have at least one living parent. Most are there for reasons such as poverty, displacement, disability, or to receive an education. And some children are there because they have been trafficked.

In this scenario, parents are promised a better life for their child - food, schooling and health care. Orphanage owners may even use 'child finders' to target vulnerable families to obtain more children to fill their orphanages to attract donations and volunteers. Others may fake the documents of children to make it look like they don’t have a family to create 'paper orphans'.

Children may be forced to perform for volunteers and visitors to procure donations. Some are kept in deliberately poor conditions and undernourished in order to elicit sympathy and donations.

This form of exploitation has yet to be recognised by the UK government in its law and policy. But a recent independent review of the Modern Slavery Act has shone new light on the problem.

Several charities gave evidence to this review about their experiences of orphanage trafficking and urged the UK to do more to examine the roles its citizens play in perpetuating the orphanage 'industry' through donations, volunteering and tourism.

The review has now responded with a recommendation for policy guidance to respond to emerging issues, such as orphanage trafficking, and to ensure the Modern Slavery Act is robust enough to cover this type of exploitation.  

The UK is not the first to question whether more should be done. Last year, Australia became the first country in the world to reference the exploitation of children in institutions in its modern slavery legislation. Also in 2018, the U.S. Trafficking in Persons report dedicated a whole section to the risk to children in institutions. This week, the Dutch Parliament held a debate on orphanage tourism and its link to child trafficking.

Momentum is growing to make people aware of the fundamental harm of orphanages, the risk of trafficking and the need to instead invest in family-based care.

One recent investigation revealed how UK donors were helping to support at least 60 illegal orphanages in Uganda. Most people donating to orphanages overseas believe they are doing good. However, the evidence is clear that orphanages are harmful to children, full stop. Children need the love and protection of a family to thrive.

The Department for International Aid recently released funding guidance that explicitly states that UK Aid Direct will not fund orphanages and institutions. This follows on from a commitment in 2018 by Penny Mordaunt, Secretary of State for International Development, to support family-based care.

These are hugely welcome steps that will help to reduce global reliance on institutions and instead help countries invest in care reform to ensure all children can grow up in safe, loving families.

Yet with the UK claiming to be ‘world leaders’ on tackling modern slavery, Lumos and its partners are calling on the government to take a strong stand against orphanage trafficking. With improved public awareness, investment in family-based care and policy guidance, we can begin to end institutionalisation and stop children being commodified in the name of charity.