Orphanage Trafficking Legislative Toolkit

Orphanage Trafficking Summary

Human trafficking is a global problem, and children are uniquely vulnerable. Almost one third of all trafficking victims worldwide are children. Human trafficking in orphanages, or “orphanage trafficking,” is defined as the recruitment or transfer of children from their families into orphanages for a purpose of exploitation or profit. The trafficking of children into orphanages encompasses those who receive, transport and harbor these children. Traffickers may be orphanage directors or staff, recruiters who search for children (sometimes called “child finders”), community leaders or members, or civil servants seeking to personally profit from referring children into care.

It has strong links to foreign aid sourced largely from Western donor countries, illicit international adoption rings, and “voluntourism” schemes that cater to tourists seeking international volunteer opportunities. The cycle of trauma is perpetuated when voluntourists form connections with the children only to depart, reinforcing the belief that those who care will eventually leave. To meet revenue goals or to meet the demand generated by tourists seeking to volunteer with “orphans,” large numbers of children are recruited into orphanages where they are exploited. Of the estimated 8 million children living in orphanages around the world, it is unknown what proportion have been trafficked. However, concerns have been widely expressed about the prevalence of unregistered and unlawfully operating orphanages that continue to admit children.

Orphanage traffickers target children who are uniquely susceptible to trafficking due to poverty, lack of access to education or other services, or other family crises. False promises of support, good education and other opportunities are often made to families during recruitment to entice them to relinquish their children. Unbeknownst to most volunteers and donors, up to 80% of the children in these orphanages have at least one living parent and other living kin. They are often called “paper orphans” due to falsification of documents vouching for parental death or abandonment.  Once living in a residential care setting, traffickers continually employ false orphan narratives to elicit sympathy and international funding.

Additionally, orphanage trafficking has become a more prominent topic due to the trafficking of children from Ukraine to Russia. A February 2023 Conflict Observatory report found that approximately 6,000 Ukrainian children have been taken by the Russian Government for pro-Russia re-education and, in some cases, military training. Some children were recruited into a network of 43 recreational camps for “ostensible vacations”. Others were taken to orphanages or institutional facilities for children in Russian linked to the Russian foster and adoption systems. In both cases, parental consent for their children’s engagement was reportedly extracted under duress and routinely violated. This is why in March of 2023 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a war crimes arrest warrant for Putin for the deportation of Ukrainian children.

Orphanage trafficking is a particularly heinous crime that exploits the most vulnerable of our society. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 8.7 calls for “immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of of human trafficking.” To enhance efforts to meet this goal, we believe SDG 8.7 should be expanded to include explicit recognition of trafficking of children into orphanages and other residential care facilities, a hidden yet growing epidemic within our modern world. The stripping of basic human rights from these children is an injustice that can be combated in part by stopping the demand for international voluntourism and curtailing foreign funding of residential care facilities, particularly those operating in contravention of law and policy.

3 Key Facts about Orphanage Trafficking:

1. Children at Risk: 8 million children are estimated to be living in orphanages around the world, and orphanage trafficking primarily affects children who are particularly vulnerable. Nearly one-third of all trafficking victims worldwide are children, making them a target for exploitation.

2. Exploitative Practices: Orphanage trafficking involves the recruitment or transfer of children from their families into orphanages for the purpose of exploitation and profit. It often operates through connections to foreign aid, illicit international adoption networks, and “voluntourism” schemes that attract tourists looking for volunteer opportunities.

3. Hidden Realities: Approximately 80% of children in orphanages have living parents or kin, earning them the label “paper orphans” due to falsified documents claiming parental death or abandonment. False narratives are used to garner sympathy and funding.

What can you do to stop orphanage trafficking?

1. EDUCATE: Lawmakers have a unique platform to educate the public about orphanage trafficking.

  • Awareness raising and capacity building: Legislators can socialize the government position, laws, regulations, and guidelines, and build the capacity for compliance and enforcement.
  • “Voluntourism”: Legislators can promote initiatives and public awareness campaigns like travel advisories that warn people of the harms of orphanage volunteering.
  • The media: Share this Legislative Toolkit and the orphanage trafficking awareness video through your media channels. Consider writing an article on the topic on behalf of your nation.

2. ADVOCATE: Legislators can advocate to other government agencies, leaders and civic organizations which provide oversight.

  • Advocate for families. Instead of removing children from their home, poverty should be removed from the home. Increased home-based care within families ensures that children are not being exploited.
  • Advocate for increased funding for upstream services that address the vulnerabilities that put children at risk of being separated from their families and recruited.

3. LEGISLATE: The proliferation of orphanages in many parts of the world is because governments fail to have adequate laws that prioritize child protection.

  • Recognize orphanage trafficking as a form of modern slavery: Legislators can create a clear position recognizing orphanage trafficking as a form of child trafficking in legislation and a clear position recognizing the harms of orphanage volunteering. Such laws should include strong penalties for those involved in trafficking and regulations against orphanage tourism and volunteering (see model legislation in this Legislative Toolkit).
  • Multi sector regulation: Legislators can regulate charities’ overseas activities and volunteering activities with children across all sectors, and prohibit orphanage tourism.
  • Data collection, data analysis, and data sharing: Legislators can develop a baseline understanding of the scope and scale of the issues to track progress and analyze trends and to advance international cooperation on this transnational issue.
Orphanage Trafficking Working Group

Legislative Lead: Senator Linda Reynolds (Australia)

Anne Basham

Founder & Chair of the Interparliamentary Taskforce on Human Trafficking

Nancy Acora MP

Member of Parliament

Sahar Albazar MP

Member of Parliament

Agho Oliver Bamenju MP

Member of Parliament

Rozalia Biro MP

Chair of the Committee for Foreign Policy of the Chamber of Deputies

Parosha Chandran

Professor of Modern Slavery Law at King's College London

Michel De Maegd MP

Member of Parliament

Nick Evans

CEO, Co-Founder Hopeland

Etilda Gjonaj MP

Member of Parliament

Hon. Tanya Gould

OSCE - International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council

Mariia Ionova MP

Member of Parliament

Katarzyna Kretkowska MP

Member of Parliament

Lynelle Long

Founder of InterCountry Adoptee Voices - Lived Experience Expert

Damon Martin

Deputy CEO, International Social Service (ISS) Australia

Leigh Matthews

Co-Founder of ReThink Orphanages

Hon. Anne Musiwa

Special Rapporteur for Children in the African Union

Rebecca Nhep

Senior Technical Advisor for the Better Care Network

Dr. Kjersti Olson

Program Director for the Working Group on Orphanage Trafficking

Davis Opoku MP

Member of Parliament

Secretary Sandy Recinos

Secretary against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Trafficking in Persons (SVET)

Stephen Ucembe

Regional Advocacy Manager for Hope and Homes - Lived Experience Expert

Dr. Kate van Doore

Deputy Head of School at Griffith Law School

Tara Winkler

Co-Founder of the Cambodian Children's Trust

Our Sponsors

Healing Hands
Foundation United