Liberal senator Linda Reynolds says Australians have helped the “perfect 21st century scam” of orphanage tourism flourish in the Asia Pacific.
Reynolds, speaking in London overnight, said Australia now had a responsibility to prevent orphanage tourism in the region.
“We have created the problem for the region, so now we have to work with other countries to fix it,” Reynolds said at an event on the sidelines of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm).
“We need to be part of the solution, and we are not waiting to act,” she said.
Reynolds has campaigned from within the government for action on orphanage tourism, a practice that nongovernment organisations and charities say is a form of modern slavery.
The vast majority of children living in “orphanages” in developing nations are not true orphans. About 80% have a living parent or family, but are often sent to the homes on the promise they will receive better care and an education.
Such institutions are often run for the profit of their owners. They are sustained by well-meaning western tourists who visit to donate or volunteer their time.
In badly run homes, children are abused, beaten, starved and forced to work without pay. Children are made to dance or sing for western tourists to solicit donations, and can be at increased risk of predatory behaviour.
Guardian Australia has previously revealed the extent of Australian financial support for orphanages in south-east Asia, and investigated popular orphanages in Bali, propped up by Australian volunteers and donations.
The support from religious groups, schools and universities is vast.
About 51% of church attendees in Australia are contributing funding to institutional care overseas through donations. More than 57% of Australian universities were advertising orphanage placements through international volunteering programs, and between 4.35% and 15.61% of public schools raised funds or visited orphanages, varying across state and territories.
Reynolds, speaking to the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London, compared such visits to a “sugar rush” of doing good and sharing it on social media.
The government has announced an awareness and education program designed to stifle Australian engagement with orphanages. But a Senate inquiry called for stronger action, including the redirecting of Australian foreign aid into community-based or family care for children.
Charities and NGOs also want to redirect funds and energy into safer and more effective forms of childcare.
It’s a strategy supported by organisations such as Lumos, founded by JK Rowling.
“It is definitely solvable as the demand has been created by people who are genuinely trying to do good,” said Georgette Mulheir, head of Lumos. “We just need to redirect that energy.”