The Guardian [London, England]
December 14, 2021
By Nicola Kelly
Millions of children worldwide are at risk of abuse and exploitation in institutions, often to attract funding from donors, says Lumos charity
Immediate action must be taken to prevent trafficking and exploitation of children in orphanages, according to a report published on Monday.
International children’s charity Lumos says that an estimated 5.4 million children worldwide live in institutions that cannot meet their needs and neglect their rights and where they are exposed to multiple forms of exploitation and harm.
The report is the first to identify global patterns of institution-related trafficking, taking into account evidence from 84 organisations in 45 countries around the world. It highlights instances of sexual exploitation, as well as children being forced to work and coerced into performing for foreign donors to secure more funding. In some instances, children were left malnourished and held in cramped, unhygienic conditions to attract money from donors and volunteers. Lumos also found cases where the institution operated as a base from which children were made available to perpetrators for several hours or days before being returned.
The charity says many vulnerable children enter institutions with forged identity documents, including false parental death certificates or paperwork attesting to abandonment, and are “coached to pose as orphans in the presence of volunteers and other visitors”. They are then trafficked out of the same institutions into other forms of exploitation, including sex work and forced begging.
In Ghana, trafficked children were subjected to some of the worst forms of abuse, with children sold by institutions to work on cocoa farms and in goldmines. In Cambodia, some orphanage owners were found to have bought vulnerable children from disadvantaged families and marketed them to donors for profit.
The report shows that trafficking is more prevalent in countries with a significant tourism industry. In Uganda, the number of children in homes has increased from about 1,000 in the late 1990s to 55,000 today, and in Cambodia, the number of residential care institutions has increased by 75% in the last decade, despite a sharp decline in the number of orphans in both countries. Most institutions are developed in tourist hotspots.
In 2017, more than 100 children attempted to flee an orphanage in Guatemala after experiencing abuse, but were brought back by law enforcement officers and placed in confinement. Fifty-six of the girls, who had been placed together in a cramped room, started a fire to gain the attention of the officers outside. The officers did not respond to the situation, resulting in the death of 41 girls.
In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly recognised the link between children’s institutions and human trafficking but the charity says there are few examples of it being tackled effectively.
Lina Gyllensten, acting director of evidence, advocacy and campaigns at Lumos, said: “Lumos’ report shows that institutions are playing a significant role in many instances of child exploitation and abuse around the world. Vulnerable children are being trapped in a complex web of institution-related trafficking and are being repeatedly exposed to multiple forms of harm. It is time to break these cycles of exploitation.”
Parosha Chandran, barrister at One Pump Court, said: “I suspect that many people will be shocked by this report. They may recognise themselves as a well-intentioned orphanage volunteer, or as a generous donor who has supported children left vulnerable after a humanitarian disaster. Reading what follows may be the first time that they realise that they’d unwittingly played a part in propping up a harmful ecosystem in which children, most of whom have at least one living parent, act as commodities in an industry of profit-making orphanages.”
The report makes recommendations for breaking the cycles of exploitation, including the reinvestment of funding from institutions into family and community-based services, better data collection and a new model law, outlining the steps national governments need to take to combat the problem.
Lumos is urging national governments to boost specialist support to children in care and ensure children get expert support and information to know their rights.