Global travel and tourism have more than doubled in the past 30 years, and there has been a surge in new travel “products” which have exposed children to exploitation. Such products include volunteer tourism, orphanage tourism and mega-events. This global growth in travel and tourism has outpaced efforts to respond at the international and national levels, leaving child protection regulations lagging behind the unprecedented growth of travel and new forms of tourism.
The socioeconomic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing stark inequalities and vulnerabilities of the most disadvantaged children, and as travel and tourism picks up after the pandemic, our attention is once again fixed on the risks to exploitation and sexual abuse children are exposed to particularly in the context of orphanage tourism and orphanage trafficking.
The Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material has therefore initiated the preparation of her next thematic report to the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, to be presented in October 2023 on this issue.
Voluntourism is defined as “organised and packaged tourist trips with a duration of a few hours to a year, in which the main purpose is to volunteer. The volunteer provides their ‘work’ within the destination free of charge. While the concept of ‘voluntourism’ generally includes an element of international travel, similar risks to children also apply in the context of domestic and local travel and tourism, when a person is allowed to volunteer with and for children in an organisation or an orphanage without previous background checks (also when such activities may not be organised by a company).”
It is often carried out by well-intentioned people that do not understand the negative impacts such trips may bring about. Volunteers are usually short-term, unskilled and have no previous experience. Projects taken on by volunteers for local communities are commonly nature-based, people-based, or involve restoration of buildings and artefacts. Among the most popular placements are those that offer opportunities to volunteer with children such as teaching in a school, organizing activities with children in a day-care centre or ‘caring’ for children in an orphanage (sometimes referred to as ‘orphanage tourism’). Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America account for over 90% of the locations offered by voluntourism sending and receiving organisations.
While volunteering is a valuable way to contribute to society and does not itself cause the sexual exploitation of children, such packaged and unsupervised voluntourism trips provide an avenue for offenders to access vulnerable children, which poses threats and harm to the child’s physical, emotional and cognitive development.  Any type of support needs to be qualified and professional in order to address the real needs of local communities and children, especially those in humanitarian, conflict, natural disasters and emergency crises.
In 2016, the Special Rapporteur highlighted research indicating that orphanages were recruiting children and maintaining them in poor conditions to prompt foreign charity to perform activities to please foreign kids. The Special Rapporteur then noted that the underlying level of demand is related to the social, cultural, gender and institutional constructs that foster the conditions in which the extent of the use of children in such activities and the way the children are treated is seemed socially acceptable.
A Lancet Commission found that children residing in institutional care were “at risk of severe physical or sexual abuse, violation of fundamental human rights, trafficking for sex or labour, exploitation through orphan tourism, and risk to health and well-being after being subjected to medical experimentation”. Orphanage trafficking is one form of trafficking and modern slavery to which children in institutional care may be exposed for exploitation and profit. Children from minority and indigenous groups are found to be overrepresented in institutional care and as candidates for international adoption.
In 2019, the Report of the Secretary General on the Status of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the UN General Assembly detailed awareness-raising campaigns that sought to highlight the potential harm to children stemming from a wave of short-term, unqualified staff, volunteers and interns in orphanages around the world as an emerging area of progress.
Furthermore, the Convention on the Ethics of Tourism, adopted by the UN World Tourism Organization in September 2019, is an important step forward in combating all forms of exploitation of children within the travel and tourism sector, and in promoting their rights. It will also help deliver the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which has targets on promoting sustainable tourism and ending violence against children.
To facilitate the understanding of the principles of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism by tourists, the World Committee on Tourism Ethics prepared a leaflet on Tips for a Responsible Traveller which calls on tourists to observe human rights and protect children from exploitation. It adds to the existing body of international law devoted to protecting children, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
Throughout the report, the Special Rapporteur particularly wishes to:
- Advance the understanding of human rights challenges faced by children by providing an analysis on how the continuous marketing and participation of voluntourism trips to host communities in exchange for life fulling experiences increases vulnerability to human rights violations;
- Draws attention to the scale and various manifestations of sale and sexual exploitation of children in many countries, spanning all regions of the globe;
- Identify promising practices at the local, national and regional levels in combatting the sale and sexual exploitation of children in the context of voluntourism;
- Highlight elements of a gender sensitive and child rights-based approach to voluntourism and its link with sustainable development;
- Provide recommendations for States and other stakeholders to address the situation in line with international human rights standards.
Key questions and types of input/comments sought
In order to inform the preparations of her report, the Special Rapporteur would like to seek contributions from States, National Human Rights Institutions, civil society organizations, United Nations agencies, academia, international and regional organizations, corporate entities, individuals on any or all of the following issues, including case studies and specific examples of promising practices and current challenges:
- What are the main causes and drivers of voluntourism? How have promotional materials and advertisements been marketed to aspiring volunteers?
- How extensive is the vetting process for aspiring volunteers? What are the eligibility requirements in terms of experience and background checks, if any?
- Do receiving organisations and countries request a fee from aspiring volunteers or other stakeholders to facilitate trips? Does a portion of payment or donations go to host communities and children? Is there a transparency policy in place? What are the procedural safeguards and measures in place to ensure that profit made within the voluntourism economy is checked and addressed?
- How has voluntourism facilitated the sale and sexual exploitation of children? Please provide any relevant statistical or disaggregated data based on age, gender, disability, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, migration status, or other categories. Please consider the specific situation of marginalized children and those in vulnerable situations in your response.
- In which sectors are the sale and sexual exploitation of children taking place in the context of voluntourism? Are they more prevalent in rural or urban areas? Please provide details.
- What positive measures are taken by States at the local, national, regional and international level to prevent the sale and sexual exploitation of children in the context of voluntourism? Please provide specific examples of constitutional provisions, legislation, institutions, regulations, standards, jurisprudence, policies, services and programs that apply a child-friendly response approach.
- What positive measures are implemented by businesses, civil society organisations or other non-governmental stakeholders in preventing, protecting and promoting the rights of child victims and survivors of sale and sexual exploitation? If so, please provide details.
- What are remaining gaps and challenges – in law and practice - in tackling voluntourism?
- What kinds of socioeconomic, cultural, legal, and/or institutional transformations would be required within your States’ national context to eliminate voluntourism that negatively impact vulnerable children?
- What implications and considerations should Governments take into account with regards to their extraterritorial human rights? How should extraterritorial activities of voluntourism that intersect with child care facilities be regulated?
- What policies or practices are already in place to ensure that business activities identify, assess, prevent, cease, mitigate, and effectively remedy adverse impacts to children’s rights, as articulated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights?
- How actively are existing mechanisms used by child victims and survivors to report on sale and sexual exploitation within the travel and tourism sector and to what extent have they been able to access justice and reparation, both domestically and extraterritorially, as a result of harms suffered by volunteers, receiving organisations and countries?
- What practical recommendations would you propose for Governments, businesses, receiving and sending organisations, tourism operators and volunteers to effectively address these ongoing challenges and protect children from sale and sexual exploitation in the travel and tourism industry?
- How can we raise awareness, improve and promote responsible voluntourism?
- How can children be protected against exchange for “life fulfilling experiences” within tourism sector? What are alternative ways to encourage aspiring volunteers to help out local communities and learn new cultures?
- How can greater implementation of international instruments on the rights of the child and tourism be ensured to protect children from negative impacts of voluntourism?
- Any other issue of relevance that are vital for consideration but that may not have been mentioned in this call for inputs?
How inputs will be used
All submissions will be posted on the mandate’s website. Should you wish to maintain confidentiality of your submission, kindly clearly indicate it at the moment of submission.
Early submissions are strongly encouraged. Additional supporting materials, such as reports, academic studies, and other background materials may be annexed to the submission.
For more on information on the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography and other child sexual abuse material please click here.
 S. Milne, Thorburn, E., Hermann, I., Hopkins, R., & Moscoso, F., ‘Voluntourism Best Practices: Promoting Inclusive Community-Based Sustainable Tourism Initiatives’, (Report, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, 2018).
 See Marinus H. van IJzendoorn and others, “Institutionalisation and deinstitutionalisation of children 1: a systematic and integrative review of evidence regarding effects on development”, The Lancet Psychiatry, vol. 7, No. 8 (2020).
 Committee on the Rights of the Child, concluding observations on the Czech Republic (CRC/C/CZE/CO/5-6), 2021, para. 45; and Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, report of the International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Children and Youth in Detention, Custody, Foster-Care and Adoption (2010), p. 11 (available at https://www.un.org/development/desa/ indigenouspeoples/unpfii-sessions-2/ninth-session.html).