The business of orphanages: where do ‘orphans’ come from?

The number of orphanages in developing nations has dramatically increased in the past decade, driven by a fraudulent trade in ‘paper orphans’. IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, CC BY-SA

Recently, Friends International launched the “Don’t create more orphans” campaign confronting the issue of orphanages as profit-driven businesses. The number of orphanages in developing nations has dramatically increased in the past decade, but where are the “orphans” coming from?

In 2009, Save the Children reported that internationally four out of five children living in orphanages were not orphans. The report noted that poor families were coerced into giving up their children by unscrupulous institutions hoping to profit from either the residence or trafficking of their children.

These children are known as “paper orphans” - children who have orphan status through falsified documentation. This problem has been detailed by reports in Nepal, Cambodia, Ghana and Uganda, as well as other developing nations.

Where do ‘paper orphans’ come from?

The reports tell the same story. “Recruiters” target families in rural areas with limited access to education for their children. They convince the family that their child will receive a better education and future in a boarding school. The recruiters often collect several children from a village under this guise and then depart with the children to a city.

In the city, the children are often sold into orphanages (if not into another form of exploitation). Once in an orphanage, the children become “paper orphans”, with names changed, death certificates for parents forged and requests for family contact denied.

Families are unable to locate their children due to these changes of identity. If parents are fortunate enough to locate them, they are advised that they have relinquished their rights to the child and are not allowed to see them.

There are detailed cases of children then being placed for inter-country adoption, but there is limited academic attention to what happens to the children who remain in the orphanages. These children are subject to the usual issues associated with long-term institutionalisation, with the added trauma of being forced to lie about their orphanhood.

The orphanage profits in many ways from the presence of these “paper orphans”. Some orphanages encourage volunteers to come and spend time with the children, profiting through the fees they charge and lower care costs due to the free labour that volunteers provide. Others have their “orphans” dance or sing to encourage donations.

These practices are harmful to the child who learns that their worth and value is determined by their orphanhood.

Confronting our participation

If you’ve previously been an orphanage volunteer, or contributed to an orphanage, it’s natural to feel confronted by Friends International’s campaign. The premise of the campaign is that, by donating to orphanages, you are contributing to a business model that commodifies children and takes them from their families. I understand how confronting it is as I was one such volunteer.

As a board member of the international NGO, Forget Me Not, I helped establish and fund best-practice orphanages in Nepal and Uganda. However, upon discovering that the children in our care were paper orphans, the organisation focused on finding the families of the children and reintegrating them.

The organisation no longer funds orphanages, but focuses on rescuing children from exploitative orphanages and returning them to where they belong. This experience led me to research the legal position of paper orphans and how we might address the issue.

Our involvement in orphanages supports the process by which these children become orphans, despite our good intentions. Flickr/Pete, CC BY

What is the solution?

The research points to family or community-based care being the solution. Orphanages are not the answer. Instead we should be returning children to family-style care and supporting families to keep their children at home.

Even where children are bona fide orphans, the research shows that orphanages are never beneficial. Community care is best.

There is clear evidence that volunteering and/or funding orphanages is fuelling the demand for paper orphans and orphanages. There is a movement to close all orphanages globally by 2050 and awareness is growing about the harm that volunteering and funding can do, despite the best of intentions.

UNICEF suggests that tourists and volunteers should refrain from visiting or donating to orphanages. Instead, we should concentrate on supporting programs that encourage family reunification or community-based care.

Australian organisations like Forget Me Not and Cambodia Children’s Trust both started out supporting orphanages, but after discovering the facts, have transformed their programs. These organisations are doing excellent work in reintegrating paper orphans with their families.

They are part of the new wave of NGOs focusing on supporting children within their family structures. Governments are also actively working with UN agencies and other NGOs to close orphanages and improve child protection mechanisms.

We know that orphanages harm children. We know these children deserve more than to be products of the orphanage business. It’s time to transform that knowledge into action.

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