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Chapter 2: A catastrophic disservice

Heat and noise hit us when the driver opens the window of our minivan. On the motorway from Phnom Penh International Airport towards the capital, vehicles travel at 100 km/h on both sides of the central reservation. A number of motorcyclists don’t seem to see the point of changing lane, and drive straight towards us on the wrong side of the road. A slightly nervous group of Norwegians check that their seatbelts are securely fastened. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

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We are back in 2015, in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It’s a beautiful city with smiling inhabitants and an extremely comfortable climate. In the hotel lobby we meet Lucia, a representative for UNICEF Cambodia. At the reception desk, beside a map of the city and overviews of restaurants and tourist activities, are flyers encouraging tourists to report anything they encounter on their travels that may indicate the sexual abuse of children. Lucia explains that, unfortunately, Cambodia has sad statistics in this area, with one in 20 children being subjected to sexual abuse, and half of all children being victims of other types of abuse, such as violence.

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Lucia tells us that the structural reason that the country is a birthplace for the trafficking of children is poverty. Many families face an immense struggle to make ends meet, and the market for trading children is large. Buyers put children on the streets, and tourists – especially us from the west – give them significant sums of money. The money is transferred from our hands, via the children, directly into to the pockets of the criminals – who are interested in keeping the children malnourished and ill, because we are then more likely to give them more money. However, the biggest problem of all, says Lucia, is the orphanages. Silence. We look at her, and each other, in confusion. Did she say orphanages? Yes. And our confusion – our lack of understanding – is a big part of the problem.

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Orphanage tourism is big business in Cambodia. Many hotels offer guided tours to orphanages to tourists looking to add an extra dimension to their trip beyond a historic visit to Angkor Wat or the Killing Fields. We tourists also want to help to improve the situation for children living in poverty while we are on holiday. And there is nothing wrong with this in itself. However, orphanage tourism does the children a huge disservice – a disservice that has catastrophic consequences.

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Over the past ten years Cambodia has experienced an explosion in the number of orphanages and orphans. But nine out of ten of these children are not actually homeless – they have a family. These families are often extremely poor and choose to sell the child to an orphanage, either because they believe this to be best for the child, or because they simply need the money. But despite the poor family economies and failures of judgement, UNICEF is extremely clear in its view: children’s chances are significantly better if they live with a family member.

We’ll continue our story next week.

Best wishes,

Bjørn Arild

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