Voluntourism – How to better protect children in destination countries

On March 9th 2018, child protection experts and representatives from the tourism industry came together for a penal discussion organized by ECPAT Germany and Tourism Watch during the International Tourism Fair (ITB) in Berlin. Voluntourism is a growing market; in particular, projects with children are highly popular amongst volunteers. However, there are very few procedures and tools in order to keep children in those projects safe. A growing number of cases of child sexual abuse through volunteers in developing countries is reported. How can different stakeholders enhance the protection of children in volunteer projects?



Antje Monshausen, Head of Tourism Watch – Bread for the World

Voluntourism – short-term volunteer services (duration: one week up to three months) with high adventure – and experience-related content has gained importance in the last years. The number of short term volunteering opportunities tripled in the last three years (5% to 14%).

Tourism Watch conducted the research “From Volunteering to Voluntourism: Challenges for the Responsible Development of a Growing Travel Trend” back in 2015, and updated it now in March 2018. One of the most severe concerns that the result shows is a massive lack of child protection.

42 out of the 50 products analyzed by Tourism Watch offered volunteering opportunities that enabled direct contact to children – yet, only every second organization has a code of conduct for their customers. Only in six out of 50 projects, the code of conduct has to be signed by the volunteers. 14 out of 25 operators offer activities in orphanage. Despite international agreements to ban orphanages from tourism and volunteering activities, it seems to be a growing trend.

19 out of 25 analyzed businesses do not have any child protection policy that describes measures taken and states specific responsibilities to protect children in a binding and transparent manner. Only in every second project (54%) potential volunteers are required to submit their criminal records, even if their volunteering means direct access to children.


Anita Dodds, Criminologist and Child Rights Consultant–South East Asia

A small police survey from the police in eleven countries in Asia regarding voluntourism shows: Ten of eleven countries identified cases of child sexual abuse through volunteers (Myanmar, Lao, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippine). Only Singapore as a country with very strict regulation reported not having any case so far.

There is a large escalation of interest from volunteers, particularly regarding activities in orphanages, schools, kindergartens, childcare centers, child-sporting facilities. Police are concerned about the risk for children being exploited across those kinds of projects, but also about voluntourism creating a potential market and a vicious circle. More volunteers mean more projects, and this creates a higher risk for being exploited by operators who entice their parents to place children in fake orphanages or fake schools.

Police reports multiple cases connected to voluntourism projects and the sexual abuse of children. Although the police feels a divide between themselves and the tourism industry, they have taken action to address child protection in voluntourism, e.g. improving standards, child protection checks on foreign volunteers, no orphanage tourism, and training for police, tour operators, projects and communities.

The following panel discussion highlighted several crucial aspects of the topic:

Theo Noten, Program Manager, Defence for Children / ECPAT Netherlands: DCI/ECPAT NL conducted a research among providers of volunteer projects, which showed: the most wanted projects involve work with children. Among the providers, 97% knew that orphanages are not a good place for children, nevertheless only 26% wanted to change their products. ECPAT NL published a multi-media campaign directed at young international volunteers. As a reaction, a debate in parliament started whether the ministry for Development Cooperation should not do more for child protection than just allowing such projects.

Damien Brosnan, Program Manager, TheCode.org: TheCode, providing a tool for the protection of children in travel and tourism, explained the new member’s policy regarding orphanages and volunteer projects or tourism packages that involve direct contact with children.

Nikki White, Director of Destinations and Sustainability, Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA): ABTA realized the need to change their approach to voluntourism for the sake of child protection. In a consultation process together with stakeholders, they developed the ABTA Volunteer Tourism Guidelines.

Kerstin Dohnal, Consultant Tourism/Voluntourism, ECPAT Austria: ECPAT Austria developed a Guidebook for Children’s Rights and Child Protection as a tool for organizations working with volunteers in international projects.

The experts agreed on three basic factors as a multi-level approach, which are needed for a positive change in enhancing child protection in volunteer tourism: 1) legislation and its implementation 2) sensitization of the tourism sector and 3) awareness raising within the hosting communities. Not to forget: Every single one of us can contribute to a responsible tourism where no child is exposed to the risk of abuse and exploitation through those who misuse voluntourism for their bad intentions.

Moderated by Sonja Kolonko, Journalist


ABTA Volunteer Tourism Guidelines https://abta.com/abta-shop/abta-volunteer-tourism-guidelines

ECPAT Austria (2017): Handbuch – Kinderrechte und Kinderschutz – Für die Vorbereitung auf internationale Freiwilligeneinsätze https://www.ecpat.at/materialien-und-publikationen/trainingshandbuecher (German only)

akte/ECPAT/tourism watch (2018, 2nd edition): From Volunteering to Voluntourism: Challenges for the Responsible Development of a Growing Travel Trend https://www.tourism-watch.de/files/profil18_voluntourism_final_en_0_0.pdf

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About Dorothea Czarnecki

Dorothea Czarnecki has worked in the anti-human trafficking field for the last thirteen years in Latin America, Europe and South East Asia. She has an undergraduate degree in intercultural communication and a Ph.D. in social sciences in the field of commercial sexual exploitation of girls with focus on Guatemala from the University of Oldenburg/Germany. Among others, Dorothea has conducted research for the European Commission on child trafficking in Germany, for ECPAT Germany on German travelling child sex offenders in Cambodia and for UNICEF Vietnam on child online protection. Currently she is the anti-child trafficking and child protection officer at ECPAT Germany and its deputy director. Since 2018, Dorothea is the German representative for the Group of Experts on Responses to Violence against Children, Committee for the Rights of the Child at the Council of Europe, and the Vice-Chair on the Board of Trustees of ECPAT International.

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