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Profit orphanages: The human rights crisis that's flying under the radar

Editor's Note: (Michelle Oliel is a Canadian human rights lawyer. She is the deputy director of the Lori E. Talsky Center for Human Rights of Woman and Children at Michigan State University College of Law and the executive director of the Stahili Foundation, a non-governmental organization that works to end child trafficking to orphanages and reform care and protection systems for children in Kenya. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.)

(CNN) Every year, thousands of well-meaning individuals make the decision to travel to developing countries on short-term visits, setting their sights on aiding vulnerable children. However, the destination for many of these travelers is an orphanage.

Orphanage volunteering and the industry that has emerged to support it have contributed to a system in Kenya and other parts of the world that creates a demand for institutions and children.

The perfect "buyers" are fee-paying voluntourists -- well-intentioned individuals who want to help. Preying on these good intentions, orphanages claim to provide care for "orphans," but in reality, these organizations are often sources of profit for sometimes unscrupulous operators who recruit children to orphanages and exploit them for financial gain. What volunteers and donors who give their time and money often don't know is that the majority of the children living in institutions have families.

Children are separated from families for a variety of reasons in Kenya, and usually not because they have no one to care for them. Many families are simply unable to provide for education and other basic needs due to poverty. Even when children are in fact orphans, or in need of care and protection, institutions like orphanages should be temporary places of last resort, and family and community-based alternatives should be prioritized.

The Government of Kenya suspended the registration of new orphanages in November 2017, citing inappropriate placement of children in institutions rather than family-based care options, and expressed concerns about possible child trafficking. The moratorium on registering new orphanages -- known in Kenya as Charitable Children's Institutions (or CCIs) -- is still in effect.

Children are recruited by institutions from vulnerable families, many of which could care for their children with the right support. After being recruited, children are often instructed to claim they are orphans and required to sing and dance for volunteers -- a form of forced begging. In addition to this façade of pageantry, children's images and stories are frequently used unethically to garner online donations or attract fee-paying volunteers. In some cases, children are purposely kept in deplorable conditions to increase donations.

This practice has immense and harrowing consequences for children, no matter how nice the orphanage appears. Children who grow up in institutions suffer long-term developmental, emotional, and psychological harms. The very rotation of volunteers also has a negative impact and adversely affects a child's ability to form healthy relationships in the future.

Demanding accountability

At the Stahili Foundation, we focus on developing solutions to the problem of orphanage trafficking and family separation in Kenya. Over the years, we've worked alongside partners in Kenya to support the efforts of the Kenyan government, which has committed to changing the way it cares for children by ensuring they grow up in families and communities.

To enact lasting change, former volunteers are also demanding accountability. For example, a lawsuit brought in Chicago by attorney Beth Fegan is using the US civil courts to hold a religious-based organization accountable for allegedly raising money to enrich itself through activities that violate international and Kenyan law, including exploiting children, misleading voluntourists and donors, and harassing and threatening a whistleblower from reporting or disclosing allegations.

We can realize this change, and it starts with each of us committing to end orphanage trafficking when travel reopens. This means a personal pledge to not go on orphan trips, which drive demand for these institutions and separate children from their families.

Instead, we should redirect our passion and commitment to help vulnerable children by advocating in our schools, colleges, churches and communities to support organizations that offer solutions to keep families together at the outset. We can also encourage the orphanages we support to be part of the change and direct our resources to enable safe family reintegration.

Finally, as we continue to fight this insidious and sometimes invisible issue, we need to raise awareness of how well-meaning volunteers and donors who continue to support orphanages are inadvertently harming children and families. Orphanages do not offer long-term and sustainable solutions. The time is always right to find ways to safely bring children home to families and communities.