By Kate van Doore

Orphanage volunteering is generally viewed as a positive contribution to developing nations. However, child protection advocates have long reported the harm it causes children; including how demand for orphanage volunteering leads to children being trafficked into orphanages for profit.

Yesterday, the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, the Honourable Alex Hawke MP, introduced the Modern Slavery Bill to the Australian federal parliament. The introduction of the Bill followed strong recommendations of the Inquiry into whether Australia should have a Modern Slavery Act held in 2017. One of the major issues considered throughout the Inquiry and its final report, Hidden in Plain Sight, was orphanage trafficking.

Orphanage trafficking occurs when children are recruited into orphanages for the purpose of exploitation and profit. The demand for orphanage trafficking is often driven by vast amounts of funding that flows to orphanages, and profit made from orphanage tourism, where people pay or donate to volunteer and visit orphanages.

At the commencement of the Inquiry last year, I wrote an article looking at how orphanage volunteering can cause child trafficking into orphanages. Since then, orphanage trafficking and the exploitation of children in orphanages has been gaining prominence as a significant issue on domestic and international political agendas.

What is orphanage trafficking?

The 2018 United States Trafficking in Persons Report released today included a section on ‘Child Institutionalisation and Human Trafficking’ explaining ‘many orphanages facilitate child trafficking by using false promises to recruit children and exploit them to profit from donations’.

There are up to 8 million children living in orphanages internationally and it is estimated the 80% of those children have biological family they could live with if supported appropriately. Many of these children reside in developing nations where child protection systems are vastly under-regulated and/or under-resourced.

Taking advantage of this context, thebusiness of orphanageshas emerged as a lucrative industry in the last decade. This is, in part, driven by the demand of people from countries like Australia who want to visit or volunteer with orphans. Large numbers of orphanages are established in popular tourist destinations to facilitate this ‘orphanage tourism’.

Where there is ademand for orphanage tourism in developing nations, children are recruited from their families into orphanages to pose as ‘orphans’. These children are known as ‘paper orphans’ as they are orphans by virtue of fraudulent documentation only.

Once in the orphanage, children are often kept in poor conditions, malnourished and without proper healthcare or schooling, in order to elicit donations and further funding from volunteers and visitors. Other forms of exploitation in orphanages occur where children are forced to perform shows, sent out to beg, forced into labour, or sexually exploited.

We know that institutionalisation is inherently harmful to children. Decades of research provides us with evidence regarding the cognitive, psychosocial and physical harms that children experience when they grow up in orphanages. However, we commonly appear to suspend that knowledge when it comes to thinking about children in developing nations growing up in orphanages. The evidence shows that regardless of the context, orphanages are no place for children in the long-term.

What is Australia doing about orphanage trafficking?

Since the Australian Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committeeheard extensive evidence in the Modern Slavery Inquiry on Australia’s contribution to orphanage trafficking, there has been an encouraging governmental response.

In November 2017, modern slavery Inquiry report, Hidden in Plain Sight, devoted an entire chapter to detailing evidence and recommendations regarding orphanage trafficking. In March 2018, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade launched a campaign to ‘prevent Australians from inadvertently contributing to child exploitation through the practice of orphanage tourism, including by participating in misleading volunteer programs’. Minister Julie Bishop, Senator Linda Reynolds and the Honourable Chris Crewther MP, have all spoken out about how Australia should combat orphanage trafficking.

The purpose of the Modern Slavery Bill introduced into parliament is to provide a supply chain reporting mechanism for large companies. If passed, this legislation will require companies who meet the reporting threshold of $100 million to report on how they identify, investigate and mitigate any risks associated with trafficking and slavery, including orphanage trafficking, in their supply chains by completing a modern slavery statement. The Explanatory Memorandum for the Bill specifically states that the trafficking and/or exploitation of children in orphanages is included in the definition.

This is relevant for large travel companies who continue to offer orphanage tourism products. Whilst there are no penalties for companies who fail to submit a modern slavery statement in the current Bill, the Honourable Alex Hawke MP stated that this legislation would encourage a ‘race to the top’ for companies to ensure that their supply chains were free of modern slavery. We have already witnessed this unfolding in relation to orphanage trafficking as major travel providers announced their withdrawal from offering orphanage tourism products over the past 18 months.

This potential legislation provides a unique opportunity for Australian companies to consider any risks they have associated with orphanage trafficking and to act accordingly. More importantly, it potentially elevates the issue of how children are trafficked into, and exploited in, orphanages, into substantive legislation that can be built upon in the coming years. I look forward to participating in the ongoing discussion and action on this issue.