Why there are so many orphanages in Southeast Asia?

This is one of the questions arising after arrival. How is it possible that there are so many orphans? Is it because of the poverty or high death rate? Or are they just more visible than elsewhere? The answer might be very different.

First of all, it is worth defining who and how uses the term ‘orphan’. In some regions orphanages take care not only of orphans, but mostly (!) of children who have parents or family. In fact, of the nearly 12,000 children living in Cambodian orphanages, only 28% have lost both parents. In some countries it is even less – in Bali 10%, in Sri Lanka 8%. Because of the lack of correct name, organizations usually use the term ‘orphans’ to call all the children living in an orphanage.

There are few reasons why some families decide to send their children there. One of them is to give them access to education, shelter and basic necessities, which families cannot afford. In worse cases, the kids come from broken families, and are not accepted by the new partner of their parent. In other cases, they might be sent to an orphanage due to the parent’s drug or alcohol abuse. Ideally, these kinds of orphanages would have an active family reunification program, but for many families sending their child to an orphanage becomes a permanent solution.

Unfortunately sometimes the kids are taken to orphanages against the family’s will. It happens that the children—who are neither abandoned nor orphaned— are put up by child traffickers for international adoption or (in worse cases) sold into the sex trade.

Regardless the reason why the children end up living in orphanages, some of them turn out to be a lucrative business. This all happens due to the growth of so called orphanage tourism – many organizations invite tourists to visit them and sometimes even a visit in an orphanage becomes a regular part of the trip organized by local travel agencies. United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that within 5 years the number of orphanages in Cambodia rapidly increased – from 153 to 269. Interestingly enough, the orphanages spring up mostly in tourists areas, where it’s easy to get not only the tourist’s attention, but also their money. In some cases there are even more than 30 orphanages located near the famous touristic sights.

As number of studies show, it is important to remember, that an orphanage is not a good solution, and very often it is not the only one. No matter how poor is the family, nothing can replace the personal care and love of a family member. Read more in the report Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why we should be investing in family-based care, which you can find in our ‘Research Papers‘ tab.