Australia has become the first country in the world to recognise so-called orphanage trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery.
The legislation forms part of a wider drive to stop Australians taking part in “voluntourism” schemes which harm rather than help the children.
It is estimated 80% of children living in the world’s orphanages have at least one living parent.
In many cases, they have been lured to the orphanages to attract volunteers.
A report by ReThink Orphanages found more than 57% of Australian universities advertise orphanage placements, with 14% of Australian schools visiting, volunteering or fundraising for institutions abroad.
The demand for such trips has created a problem in South East Asia, Australian Senator Linda Reynolds said earlier this year, calling orphan tourism the “perfect 21st-Century scam”.
Ms Reynolds told the Thomson Reuters Foundation foreign visitors were left with a “sugar rush” after apparently doing something good – and then sharing it on social media.
But many fail to realise their “good deed” is in fact fuelling an industry based on child exploitation in numerous countries around the world.
In effect, then-Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in March, the children have “become tourist attractions”.
‘Forced to perform’
Many of the children found in orphanages in countries like Nepal and Cambodia come from poor backgrounds, and are handed over by their families on the promise of receiving an education, being well-cared for and well-fed.
The reality is, the children are used to raise money that often ends up in the pocket of the orphanage director, Chloe Setter, senior adviser on anti-trafficking and voluntourism at Lumos, a charity working to end the problem of children living in poor quality institutions, explained.
According to the US State Department, “many orphanages use the children to raise funds by forcing them to perform shows for or interact and play with potential donors to encourage more donations”.
Even in the most well-meaning of orphanages, critics say children are often unable to thrive in an institutional environment, harming their development.
Ms Setter now hopes other countries will follow in Australia’s footsteps.
“Australia’s legislation will help to take orphanage trafficking out of the shadows and put it in the spotlight on the global stage,” she said. “We now need other countries to adopt similar measures and ensure their own anti-slavery legislation protects against this heinous type of child trafficking.
“We welcome this important first step from the Australian government to tackle orphanage trafficking and we look forward to working with other countries to follow their lead.”