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Wednesday, 2 March 2016
Page: 1584

Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (12:45): I rise today to speak on an important issue that came to my attention during a recent visit to Cambodia with Save the Children—that is, the issue of voluntourism. Voluntourism is where individuals and groups of well-intentioned, idealistic and relatively privileged travellers go overseas with the stated intent of helping poor people. Thousands of Australians go overseas every year now, with the best of intentions, to help those less fortunate than themselves. Some choose projects wisely and do make an enduring difference to the lives of individuals and their communities. Sadly, however, many inadvertently become involved in 'voluntourism', a term coined and used internationally.

Voluntourism is big business today, worth billions of dollars globally and many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars here in Australia. There are many wonderful programs doing great things in local communities right across our region that absolutely deserve our support, but voluntourists typically do not do enough due diligence to ensure they are—a term I have coined—'smart volunteers'. Too many Australian overseas volunteers are going into communities with no real appreciation of local history, culture, religion, traditions and way of life. Their laudable intent, on return home, is to know that they have done good and that those who have received their charity are grateful. Sadly, all too often, when returning home feeling really good about themselves, they have made, at best, a negligible long-term impact and they may have inadvertently created and left problems in their wake. Consequently, it is possible to do more harm than good and never be the wiser.

With our good intentions, our relative affluence and the millions of dollars that flow into these communities come many opportunities for sophisticated cons and scams. Consequently, the good intentions of many Australians—tourists, school groups, charities, service organisations and religious groups—can be, and are being, exploited by unscrupulous operators in Cambodia, my most recent destination, and other South-East Asian countries. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the support provided to the hundreds of so-called orphanages in the region that Australians are today flocking to support.

In Cambodia, the message to me and my colleagues from both sides of the parliament was very clear and unequivocal: please stop Australians coming here to support unregulated orphanages and unknowingly becoming what are internationally termed 'orphanage tourists'. These warnings are also shared by DFAT on their Smartraveller website, but the advice is very hard to find—a situation I am now working to address, along with the addition, I hope, of a prominent new 'smart volunteer' site. UNICEF actively campaigns that children should never be tourist attractions, but that is, in effect, what thousands of children in residential facilities in South-East Asia have become.

In Australia, we have long known the harm that institutional care can do to children, so I am bemused that we are rushing in record numbers to support these same facilities overseas. We know that regular short-term visits from strangers, no matter how well-intentioned, can be harmful to a child's development and emotional wellbeing, and exposes them to the very real possibility of abuse. Furthermore, those going overseas to orphanages and other residential care facilities and enjoying the entertainment provided by children performing local-culture shows should instead be asking why the children are not in school.

According to UNICEF, at least 75 per cent of children living in so-called orphanages still have one living parent, many of whom are paid in exchange for their child living in these facilities. Orphanage operators in Cambodia have been known to seek out children to live in their establishments and to provide payment or exercise coercion for their parents to give them up. Often these children come from very poor families in rural areas, and the operators disingenuously offer parents the opportunity of a better life for their children than the parents believe they would be able to provide in their local communities. Just stop and think about that: thousands of children are being removed from their families, from their friends, from their communities, from those who love and nurture them, to fill places in these facilities.

Not only are these children isolated from their families; many of them receive substandard formal education, they live in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, they are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse and they are deprived of the opportunities to develop life skills in society and in the workforce. It is well documented that, when they reach adulthood and leave the institution, they experience great difficulty integrating into society, and they already face major social and developmental challenges. So they often suffer the impact of long-term neglect and abuse, just as Australian children do in similar facilities. Perversely, the more we support these unregulated institutions, the more displaced children we are now creating as new orphanages spring up to satisfy our own personal desire to volunteer to help poor children.

NGOs internationally emphasise the importance of development programs that provide skills training and education—for example, in agricultural techniques and small business management—for individuals and communities so they are better able to support their children and keep their families together in their local communities. This is the approach now adopted by DFAT in the allocation of Australian aid, which specifically does not fund programs that work with orphanages in Cambodia and elsewhere.

While not all overseas orphanages are exploiting children for profit, for Australians it can be almost impossible to tell the difference. There are many programs, however, run by reputable NGOs that focus on community care for orphans or for children whose parents are unable to care for them. They believe, like I do, that this is the best method to ensure that they experience a childhood of stability, safety and strong education, and learn the life skills necessary to live successfully in their own communities.

Consequently, I am seeking to raise awareness of the harm unknowingly being done by many Australians who simply do not do sufficient due diligence before they travel overseas. I also want to make sure that they know about how to access information on reputable NGOs that are working with children and their families in local communities. To that end, I am advocating for a new DFAT 'smart volunteer' website to be prominently located on the main DFAT webpage to provide practical assistance for all Australians wanting to volunteer overseas to ensure that they make the best possible choices. I urge all Australians hoping to help, or donate money to, orphanages overseas to do their due diligence. They should only work with reputable international organisations or charities registered here in Australia that focus on community care for children, capacity building and education.

With that in mind I am now working with Save the Children and with Minister for International Development and the Pacific Senator Fierravanti-Wells, Minister O'Dwyer and other ministers to develop more accessible and informative resources to better inform and prepare Australian who want to make a real and enduring difference to the lives of others in our region how to become a smart volunteer instead of inadvertently becoming a voluntourist. I want to ensure that all West Australians and, indeed, all Australians become smart volunteers who make an enduring difference to the lives of many in other communities and not inadvertently become voluntourists—who can make the situation in the communities that they go to worse, not better.