Teresia Wairimu is a survivor of orphanage trafficking. Her experience of being taken from her home in rural Kenya to an orphanage, for the sole purpose of interacting with western volunteers and to keep donations to the orphanage flowing, is disturbingly common.
While both Teresia’s parents were no longer able to take care of her, she lived happily with her aunt until a man, known locally as a child finder, showed up in their village offering to take Teresia away so that she could be fed, housed and receive a good education.
“I wanted Teresia to stay with me like a daughter, but I didn’t have enough money. When I was approached by someone who could take her into an orphanage, I didn’t have a choice” said Teresia’s aunt.
The reality for Teresia couldn’t have been more different from what had been promised. It was made clear to her from the start that the orphanage’s primary concern was to ensure volunteers visiting the orphanage were kept happy so that they would return, set up fundraisers and make large donations to the orphanage.
These institutions operate like businesses and the children are treated no better than commodities.
Teresia told CNN:
Sometimes we could be told not to go to school because a volunteer is coming. So you had to entertain that volunteer.
Michelle Oliel is one volunteer who raised thousands of dollars for the orphanage Teresia lived in. But she soon realized that the money was not reaching the children at all. She said:
Children were often starving. Children were being forced to work. Some of the children were not even sleeping at the orphanage but were going home and sleeping in porcupine holes.
Orphanage trafficking has recently begun to be formally recognized by national and international agencies as a form of modern slavery, perpetuated by the opportunity presented to traffickers in the form of orphanage volunteering.
Yet, some volunteer tour operators continue to offer these placements to prospective volunteers, fueling the cycle of trafficking and exploitation.
Over 100,000 people around the world have joined the Freedom United campaign urging volunteer tour operators to commit to stop offering placements in orphanages as part of tourism packages.