Orphanages in South East Asia are not what they seem

Living in South East Asia I often see aid workers and volunteers working in orphanages. I am often approached by various people to donate to an orphanage or attend a party at an orphanage. This seems like a very worthwhile and selfless thing to do. Being in South East Asia you see a very high degree of poverty and you often feel guilty and want to give something back, orphanages are an easy way to do that….or so you might think.

When you go to an orphanage you will see children living in desperately poor conditions with barely enough food and water to go around, children will welcome you with open arms, many of them curious having had little contact with foreigners before. Sadly, some of these orphanages are terribly corrupt and often put up a façade for the outside foreigner or aid worker in order to increase their donations.

The fact is that many of the children living in orphanages in South East Asia are not orphans at all, many of them have families or living relatives. The word orphanage is not true in the western sense of the word, a better description for these places should be “children’s homes” or “shelters”. The majority of children are not orphans, they just come from very poor families. In Myanmar now, you are warned at a lot of the airports that nearly 80% of children living in orphanages are not orphans at all and many have families.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of orphanages being set up in South East Asia. Cambodia has seen the biggest increase, but countries like Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand have also seen a rise in the number of places set up as orphanages. Orphanage tourism is actually exacerbating the problem and more of more of these institutions are set up to cater for the western sympathy money that comes their way.

Years of research and history has shown us that children living in institutions are at greater risk of growing up with mental health, physical growth and language problems. I urge all travelers, do not give money or volunteer to any of these institutions whether or not it looks like a well-run place. Any institution that calls itself an orphanage in South East Asia needs to be looked into fully before committing your time and money. It is no surprise that the highest concentration of orphanages in South East Asia are set up around tourist hotspots.

A better way to give back to the countries you are visiting is to look for local run charities that have a good track record and that genuinely look after the interests of the children or adults they are caring for. One such charity is the Father Ray Foundation that I have blogged about before SEE HERE. The SET foundation is another great charity, both of these are based in Thailand and have done a lot of great work over the years. These are worthwhile and you can be sure that all the money you send will go directly to change the children’s lives.

Please say no to orphanages in South East Asia. 

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