#HelpingNotHelping: JK Rowling urges students not to volunteer at orphanages

Human TraffickingPrevention

JK Rowling is calling of students to stop volunteering at orphanages based on the clear evidence that “orphanage tourism” is fuelling child trafficking and the separation of parents from their children.

“Despite the best of intentions, the sad truth is that visiting and volunteering in orphanages drives an industry that separates children from their families and puts them at risk of neglect and abuse,” she said speaking at the One Young World Summit in London.

Rowling, while being best known for authoring the Harry Potter books, is also the founder and president of children’s charity Lumos, which has been campaigning to find alternatives to orphanages for vulnerable children.

“Institutionalism is one of the worst things you can do to children in the world. It has huge effects on their normal development, it renders children vulnerable to abuse and trafficking, and it massively impacts their life chances,” said Rowling.

“And these dire statistics apply even to what we would see as well-run orphanages … The effect on children is universally poor.”

The Guardian reports:

Rowling was launching a three-year global campaign to challenge attitudes toward orphanage tourism and volunteering, #HelpingNotHelping. The campaign is backed by recently revised travel advice from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office warning of the potential harm of orphanage tourism and volunteering.

Huge numbers of volunteers, tourists and backpackers visit residential children’s institutions every year, creating a multimillion-dollar tourism industry that leaves children at risk of all forms of abuse, according to Lumos.

Children in institutions are 500 times more likely to take their own lives, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record and 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution, the charity claims.

A campaign launched on Thursday by Lumos and YouGov suggests volunteers are largely unaware of the potential harm their visits can do. An estimated two-thirds of UK students believe volunteering at an orphanage overseas would enhance their CV or career prospects, and one in five have either visited or volunteered at an orphanage overseas – or know someone who has, the charity said.

Research from Lumos has found that the overwhelming majority of students were unaware that 80% of the 8 million children currently living in orphanages worldwide have at least one living parent.

Chloe Setter, Lumos’ senior adviser on anti-trafficking said that the organization would soon publish research on how children are being trafficked to orphanages in order to attract donations and volunteers from overseas.

“Many orphanages, in particular unregistered orphanages, are run like a business and it’s not a coincidence that they’re often located in tourist areas,” said Setter.

“What we see on the ground is families, and their children, being targeted by ‘child-finders’ who are sometimes paying them or otherwise encouraging them to give their child up to the orphanage for a ‘better life’, with education being one of the main reasons, usually because of poverty.”

Ruth Wacuka, a One Young World ambassador from Kenya, experienced this first-hand. She told the audience how she was placed in an orphanage in Nairobi by her parents, who thought she would get an education and be taken care of.

“The orphanage was next to a giraffe sanctuary, so you can imagine how many visitors we would get,” said Wacuka.

“They would come to the sanctuary to take photos of the giraffes and then come to the orphanage to take pictures of me. But children are not tourist attractions. They are not animals. They have lives and destinies.”

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DamianaNoreenFreedom UnitedMaria kjelstadNicola Downes Recent comment authors
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Maria kjelstad
Maria kjelstad

I want to know more.

Freedom United

Hi Maria,

You can find more information about Lumos’ #HelpingNotHelping campaign here: https://www.helpingnothelping.org/

Nicola Downes

Support the Black family! A similar situation in the US and the UK is happening in the care system. A disproportionate number of children in care are Black, and have usually been removed from parents against their will, due to structural inequalities, which result in poverty and mental illness etc.

Private fostering agencies are making an absolute financial killing because of this situation. Help families to cope better, don’t take away their children and sell them!

Mary Samara-Wickrama

Not all orphanages are exploiting children . My younger son, 44, came to us as a baby from Friends For all Children, Saigon after a short stay in a convent . After his birth, his mother left the hospital leaving no name or contact details. FFAC went to great trouble to preserve the life of him and other sick children so they could come to Australia on the “baby airlift” in 1975.

In Sri Lanka there are children’s homes where orphans and children whose parents cannot afford to feed them live.

Freedom United

Hi Mary,

Thank you for sharing your experience with us. We accept that there are individual cases where the negative impact of institutionalization may not be apparent, however extensive research shows that orphanage tourism is helping drive the economy that enables the trafficking and exploitation of children in orphanages. Whilst not all orphanages may be exploiting children, by placing volunteers and attracting generous donations, it creates an incentive for traffickers to benefit from that economy in unscrupulous and poorly managed orphanages. Research shows that supporting communities instead gives children a better outcome.


A lot of this is because some 10 or so years ago organizations that accepted volunteers starting charging money to said volunteers, vs. just offering them food and board while they worked for free. This changed everything! It use to be one could volunteer overseas without cost to the organization since you’d be giving free labor, but when groups started charging that must have triggered opportunism in others to start trafficking. Remove the fees and you’ll have less incentive.


There might be some problems with some orphanages, but to paint them all as bad is pretty irresponsible. If I get another petition like this, take me off your list.

Freedom United

Hi Jay, Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. With regards to our campaign to end orphanage trafficking, we are asking tour operators to stop offering placements in orphanages. Whilst they may be certain that the particular orphanages they are working are not linked to trafficking, by placing volunteers and attracting generous donations, it creates an incentive for traffickers to benefit from that economy in unscrupulous and poorly managed orphanages. We are not suggesting that all orphanages are involved in child trafficking but research shows that supporting communities instead gives children a much better outcome. Please let us know… Read more »

Andrea Milner
Andrea Milner

I also worry about the motivation of young people going to volunteer in these orphanages in order to make their cvs look good! I find this deeply disturbing!


That seems to be relatively trivial in comparison to the idea that children are being trafficked.


Agreed. It’s shallow and thus might be partially why there has been such a rise in corruption regarding this issue, some being oblivious to the effects of their volunteering. It shouldn’t be why one volunteers, their cv, blech….that is gross. Volunteer because you love to give and want to help but maybe can’t do it full time.