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Nepal’s bogus orphan trade fuelled by rise in ‘voluntourism’

Poor parents routinely duped into sending children to homes  where owners use them to extract money from foreign visitors

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A child is driven away after being rescued by police from the Happy Home orphanage in Kathmandu. Photograph: Peter Pattisson
By Pete Pattisson 

Like an increasing number of tourists visiting Nepal’s mountain peaks, colourful markets and lush national parks, Marina Argeisa wanted to experience the latest must-do activity on the tourist trail: a volunteering stint at an orphanage.

What the 26-year-old Spaniard did not know was that her good intentions were unwittingly feeding an industry that dupes poor parents into sending their children to bogus orphanages in order to extract money from well-meaning foreigners.

It is a business model built on a double deception: the exploitation of poor families in rural Nepal and the manipulation of wealthy foreigners. In the worst cases, tourists may be unwittingly complicit in child trafficking.

Nepal’s tourist sector comprises nearly 3% of its gross domestic product, and in 2012 more than 600,000 foreigners visited the tiny country.

Volunteering, or voluntourism as it is sometimes known, is a rapidly expanding industry. There are dozens of agencies offering the chance to spend weeks, or months, working at some of the country’s 800 orphanages.

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