Explained: Australia’s parliamentary inquiry to combat orphanage tourism

During the last few weeks we heard spectacular news about some of the largest travel and volunteer sending companies (i.a. Projects Abroad[1], World Challenge[2] WorkingAbroad[3]) to stop sending volunteers into residential care institutions (orphanages). This is a great deal regarding children rights within the tourism and volunteer travel sector. But there is no such decision without a good reason especially if it is about leaving a huge market potential aside. [4] One thing is for sure: There is no convincing argument that this change of business policy came now and not earlier. The harmful practice of the commercialization of orphanage volunteer services and voluntourism is a well-known problem for years. But so far, nothing has happened. The supply of services for unskilled volunteers providing child care programs in orphanages was getting bigger and bigger. The market boomed. But yet, there are good reasons to justify the path breaking decision at this time as it is connected to the recent political developments and a result of the increasing pressure on the travel and tourism sector to regulate the industry. That is what this article is about: The role of policies at the government level to raise awareness and its power to bring change.


United States (U.S.): Trafficking in Persons Report 2017

The policy change has been introduced at the end of June, when the U.S. State Department’s Office to  Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons issued its annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) Report 2017[5]. The report focused primarily on the responsibility of governments to criminalize human trafficking and hold offenders accountable. And for the very first time a governmental institution outlined clearly the phenomena of orphanage trafficking and harmful orphanage volunteering practices. Here, crucial quote that underlines the core message:


“[…] Under false promises of education and work opportunities, Nepali parents give their children to brokers who instead take them to frequently unregistered children’s homes in urban locations, where they are forced to pretend to be orphans to garner donations from tourists and volunteers; some of the children are also forced to beg on the street. […].”[6]


This report took things to another level. It was followed by plans of the Australian government to establish a Modern Slavery Act in the tradition of the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act in 2015.


United Kingdom: Modern Slavery Act (2015)

The UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 introduced a number of regulations to combat human trafficking and slavery, i.a. the introduction of independent child trafficking advocates. But it does not cover the problem of orphanage voluntourism and trafficking.


Australia: Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act (2017)

In contrast to the UK, the Australian plans to establish a “Modern Slavery Act” include the issues of orphanage volunteering and voluntourism (short-term-volunteering while also participating in tourism) in a multifaceted approach.Thanks to international and Australian Non-Government Organizations, notably the ReThink Orphanages coalition, the appointed Committee investigated on measures to better combat modern slavery in Australia and globally including measures to combat orphanage trafficking.

On December 7, the Committee published its final report[7] with 49 recommendations in total. In eight chapters the report addresses separate aspects of modern slavery as well as measures to control, prevent and fight all forms of modern slavery:

On December 7, the Committee published its final report with 49 recommendations in total. In eight chapters the report addresses separate aspects of modern slavery as well as measures to control, prevent and fight all forms of modern slavery

The topic of ‘orphanage trafficking’ or ‘paper orphaning’ is presented prominently in a separate chapter. An inquiry on federal political level is a major push to the combat of orphanage voluntourism – in Australia and globally! Equally important are the Committee’s findings in its final report: The Committee agrees that orphanage trafficking should be recognized as a form of modern slavery in Australia’s legislative and policy frameworks and under the proposed Modern Slavery Act (formal recognition). The Committee’s report is only a recommendation and is not legally binding. Only if  parliament follows the recommendations, it would raise awareness significantly for orphanage trafficking as well as in the implementation of policies to combat it.  The decision of some volunteer travel companies to stop sending volunteers into orphanages from now on can be seen as a possible result of the great political and public debate. They could have been impressed by the public hearings as well as by the impending restrictions and fines for violations.


In total, the Committee listed 11 recommendations on measures to fight orphanage trafficking:

 11 recommendations on measures to fight orphanage trafficking:


The Committee founded its package of measures mainly on these four pillars:

founded its package of measures mainly on these four pillars


  1. Data collection system: The development of a system and mechanism to gain reliable data on the number of children in institutional care globally is recommended. For good reasons: Without numbers, it is easy for children to disappear and without information on of the scale  it is not possible to draw up reliable and sufficient national programs
  2. Awareness raising: The Committee pursues a multi-stakeholder approach by addressing the key actors via diverse channels: international governments, education providers, businesses, travel industry, charities, travelers, volunteers, donors and the public. It highlights the importance of the role of awareness-raising.
  3. Restrictions for funding and volunteering: Australian organizations and individuals should be restricted to only volunteer with, donate to or fund registered residential institutions. Restrictions should be introduced on Australian tourism operators, schools, churches, businesses and others organizing trips to volunteer in, or donating to or funding, overseas residential institutions with exemption for those that comply with the UNCRC and that aim to reintegrate children with families or other families and community based models of care. Considerations should be taken to introduce offences and penalties for businesses and organizations that facilitate, enable, organize, benefit from, funding, donate to, or profit from tourist visits to unregistered residential institutions without compliance. Considerations should also be made on introducing new offences for facilitating, enabling, organizing, benefiting from, funding, donating to, or profiting from orphanage tourism.
  4. Register for overseas residential institutions: The register should be publicly available and residential institutions should require compliance with a range of child protection standards consistent with the UNCRC to register. After a transition period of two years, they have to actively seek and be granted registration. Furthermore, they should support reintegration of children with their families and other family-based models of care. Orphanages should also require volunteers to be adequately qualified and have the appropriate Australian certifications and child protection clearances. The Committee recommends to put the administration on a government agency on the basis of the residential institutions having to apply for recognition and provide evidence of its compliance.


Outlook for 2018

The final report is published – what are the next steps? Next, the government has to respond to the report within six months by a written statement to the House of Representatives, thus by June 7, 2018. It has three ways to deal with the recommendations: 1. (partially) acceptance and announcement of its intention to take certain action; 2. rejection and 3. announcement to give further consideration.


Resume – orphanage tourism

Tourism and its association with modern slavery is rarely highlighted. The problems with orphanage tourism and for-profit-orphanages are well-known for many years. Despite this, until now little global action has occurred to stop this form of child exploitation.[8]

To deal with orphanage tourism in a responsible and sustainable way requires a cooperation between all stakeholders: the governments of the sending countries, the governments of the destination countries, the travel and tourism industry, the donors, the upcoming volunteers, the families of the children, the community and the most important: the children themselves!

To deal with orphanage tourism in a responsible and sustainable way requires a cooperation between all stakeholders

A global solution to tackle orphanage volunteering and trafficking is just as complex as the variety of its players. But some crucial findings get obvious by the above chart:


  1. There is not the one and only solution, it is far more complex.
  2. It requires a multifaceted approach to address all links in the supply chain.
  3. The best interest of the children should be the starting point for all considerations.
  4. In return, all measures must fit best to the need of the children.
  5. It needs a holistic political strategy (top-down), as policies are the motor of awareness-raising and laws and regulations are the basis for all societal action.
  6. A good cooperation mechanism between the relevant players has to be ensured (bottom-up).


It will be exciting to see what conclusions the Australian government will draw from the final report. Until now, it is just a draft of papers. But the political inquiry has led to a public debate that led Projects Abroad and World Challenge to stop sending their clients to orphanages. The companies finally accepted that vulnerable children need to be protected – from changing caregivers, from exploitation, from abuse, from separation from there living parents and family – from being used as a business object to fulfill the interests of volunteers and donors. Hopefully, there will be other companies who will follow suit.[9]


[1] Projects Abroad, New York, Press Release from November 8, 2017

[2] ABC news, Ruby Jones, September 14, 2017

[3] Workingabroad.com

[4] Estimated value of the ‘voluntourism’ industry is US$2.6 billion. ReThink Orphanages in: Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia, Final report, p. 231

[5] U.S. Department, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report: Country Narratives

[6] U.S. Department, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report: Country Narratives, Tier 2 Nepal, p. 294 ff

[7] Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia, Final report

[8] Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia, Final report, p. 225

[9] International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) recently proclaimed to not stop sending volunteers to orphanages. Its founder Daniel Radcliffe posted on his blog: ending orphanage volunteering would be “punishing the good orphanages out there who genuinely need the help”.

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About Sarah Heilmann

Sarah works as a lawyer at the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in Berlin. She is responsible for measures and legislation in the fields of gender equality, women’s rights and protection of women against violence. During her legal clerkship she gained working experience in the international development cooperation. Sarah worked in the country unit for South East Asia at the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in Bonn where she supported the resumption of the international cooperation with Myanmar. After her Second State Exam Sarah worked with the Society for International Cooperation (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – GIZ) in Bangladesh. There she joined the program Rule of Law and strengthened her intercultural understanding. In her free time Sarah volunteers as a translator for Child Fund and as a communication advisor for an NGO that supports the integration of young refugees. She loves to travel and is a real foodie.

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