Tourists and volunteers have always been deeply touched by the plight of orphans in Nepal. The orphanage business has experienced exponential growth since the 2015 earthquake, which devastated Nepal. However, recent findings point to illegal trade in some of the orphanages in which many Australians unknowingly fund. Australia has now launched an enquiry with an aim to establish a Modern Slavery Act. Jessica Cortis reports.
“We never spoke about how much we missed our parents with people from the orphanage. They [the carers] scolded us and threatened to beat us so we were afraid to ask about them,” says Alisha, 12.
Softly spoken and shy in nature, Alisha says she thought about her parents all the time. She is among hundreds of orphans in Nepal who have been taken into the care of Forget Me Not.
Established in 2005, Forget Me Not is a non- government organisation in Australia that has helped fund and run an orphanage in Nepal. It was founded by Australian volunteer Andrea Nave, who realised through her own volunteering experience that raising orphans like Alisha with the help of volunteers was unethical. These orphans needed continuous care, leading her to employ local Nepalese carers who could ensure a culturally appropriate upbringing for the children. By 2011, the number of orphans in the care of Forget Me Not grew to 21.
Back home in Australia, people were excited to undertake the new responsibility of sponsoring Forget Me Not’s orphans. From paying educational expenses, living costs, the up keep of caregivers and medical care, Australian sponsors thought they were doing these orphans a world of good.
That was until Andrea realised the children in her care weren’t orphans at all. Somewhere in the rural mountains of the Nepalese Himalayas were mourning parents who thought their children were gone forever.
To Andrea’s horror, her partner organisation was illegally running the orphanage by recruiting children from decrepit villages and creating false documents, giving the illusion they were parentless. They would then make money from tourists who wanted to help Alisha and other children residing at the orphanage. Some were even being sold off and adopted abroad. Essentially, the children’s orphanage was profiting from the vulnerability of families, volunteers and sponsors.
“These were children I had come to know over the years. They were the young people I was working for and supposed to be protecting and they were using false names the whole time,” Andrea says.
The children were known as paper orphans; a term used to describe a child with an orphan status by way of falsified documentation. According to a 2016 State of Children report, 16,886 Nepalese youth are illegally institutionalised in orphanages and children’s homes. In the past year, this number has increased by 486.
Lured by the promise of a golden dream, poverty stricken families in Nepal are handing over their child to orphanage operators who claim they will provide them with an education and a proper home.
“Who doesn’t want the best for their child?” Andrea asks. “Parents are signing documents they often can’t read due to poor literacy, and they naively hand their child over with all the money they have.”
Selling these children off is in fact a key feature of trafficking, Andrea says bluntly. And Australians are unknowingly helping fund this. The Australian Attorney General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, recently announced an inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act, following a rise in volunteerism. If successful, the Act will seek to put strict limitations on the relaxed sponsoring and volunteer regimes currently in place to protect Australians from naively supporting human trafficking and child exploitation.
Andrea is among those pushing for the Act and says the shocking revelation made her question her time as a volunteer. “It was a tragedy and it was a lot of trauma for me to find out but there was no way our organisation in Australia was going to let that be,” she says holding her head up high, her eyes sparkling with a new set of determination.
Her motivation now is to reunite paper orphans with the families they have so tragically been taken away from. “We went straight to Nepal to be with these children as soon as Alisha confided in us about what was happening. On arrival, we were locked out of our partner organisation and given a choice. The children or the property.”
She didn’t think twice. With 21 children now in their care, Forget Me Not fought for custody over their partner organisation. It was the first time in Nepalese history a foreign organisation had won ownership over a registered charity.
In 2014 after eight years of separation, Forget Me Not located young Alisha’s real family. It was toughest for Alisha’s grandmother Rickshi Lopchan, who reflects on her granddaughter’s absence saying, “My heart was pounding wondering where she was. We heard no news of her but when she had returned to us, it was as if gold had been laid at our feet.”
Alisha’s story is just one of many. Since Forget Me Not began the process of reintegrating children, they have successfully reunited 88 children with their families with the youngest child aged four and the oldest just 16.
The Government of Nepal’s Child Policy 2012 states that the institutionalisation of children should be a last resort, however the reality of Nepal is quite the opposite. There are currently 572 children’s homes in Nepal. There still remain many others that operate without proper registration.
Kate Van Doore, International children’s rights lawyer and lecturer at Griffith University says that donations to foreign orphanages fuels the need for illegitimate orphans. If one didn’t know any better, they could assume it was a business model.
“To satisfy demand, children like Alisha are taken from their homes and are used to solicit funding. It’s a cruel reality but a child’s welfare at these orphanages has become secondary to the profit motive,” she says.
Children are often forced to perform cultural dances for foreign visitors and volunteers. Some are sent out to beg for funds on the streets, while others hand out flyers advertising their orphanage. In some cases, orphanage operators have deliberately malnourished children because in their mind, more sympathy means more money.
“You cannot do that to a child and sleep soundly at night for the rest of your life.”
– Andrea Nave, Forget Me Not CEO
Kate believes that putting children in institutions violates a child’s right to grow up in a family. She says residential care can also have serious detrimental impacts on a child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.
It’s a sad reality, but even sadder is the fact most of the children won’t recognise their parents because they have been separated from them for so long, she says.
Andrea and Kate are urging Australians to think about what charities and organisations they are sponsoring. “Australia has a real chance to lead change on this issue internationally if we can think about the effect our actions are having on these children and place their needs above ours. Our first step is to stem the demand and the inquiry is a great chance to think about how we might do this,” Kate says.
Forget Me Not is hoping their tragic discovery will help in the Modern Slavery inquiry so they can stop unknowing Australians from supporting the institutionalisation of children, not just in Nepal, but all over the world.
“We have no problem in admitting our history because it happened to us and its part of the Forget Me Not story. What we do about it now is most important,” Andrea says.