KATHMANDU, NEPAL — In 2016, J.A. Blanco arrived in Nepal to volunteer at a children’s home.
It was easy, he says. He searched online for a place where he could work for a month, and he found Relationship Nepal, which bills itself as an orphanage in Lalitpur, a city near Kathmandu, the capital.
“I used to teach the children English at the orphanage,” he told GPJ via a conversation over WhatsApp, the text-messaging service. “I would also share stories of my travel and show photos to the children.”
Blanco is from Spain. Like anyone from outside Nepal, he should have applied for a work visa, even to volunteer. He assumed that his time at Relationship Nepal was legal because he wasn’t being paid, and no one at the children’s home informed him of the law.
It’s common for agencies in Nepal to advertise online to attract volunteers and then match them with children’s homes, many of which are called orphanages, even if some or all of the children living there aren’t orphans. (The agencies often match people with other types of volunteer opportunities, too.). Very few, if any, of those volunteers get the work visa that they’re legally required to have. The practice opens vulnerable children to exploitation and abuse, as an ongoing stream of strangers comes through their living spaces, often with unfettered access to the boys and girls there.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Tourist visas specifically state that employment of any kind is prohibited, says Dipak Kaphle, director general of the Department of Immigration in Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs. That includes volunteer work.
The problem is compounded because various government offices and agencies aren’t coordinated enough to enforce the law, officials in multiple departments say. The result is that foreigners who want to spend time at children’s homes can slip in and out of the country as easily as those who come to trek through the mountains or explore Kathmandu.
Hosting organizations don’t usually check the backgrounds of volunteers, says Namuna Bhusal, an official with the government’s Central Child Welfare Board.
“There have been incidents of pedophilia and abuse,” Bhusal says. “Some of the volunteers take children with them for holidays and keep them in hotels.”
The problem exists even with people trained to work with children, including, in at least one case, a highly respected international official.
In April, Peter Dalglish, who has worked with children around the world as a United Nations and World Health Organization official, was arrested in Nepal on charges related to child sex abuse. Local news outlets quoted police officials as saying Dalglish was found with two children in his room.
UNICEF, the U.N. agency for which Dalglish worked, has repeatedly published documents noting that investigating and prosecuting child sex abuse in Nepal is a particular challenge, because cases are rarely reported.
But in some cases, Bhusal says, volunteers who come to Nepal without knowing the law requiring them to have work visas end up reporting abusive practices to local authorities, leading the government to close homes and rescue children. Between July 2016 and June 2017, the government closed 12 children’s homes and rescued 114, she says.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
In November 2017, Bhusal says, the Central Child Welfare Board made a list of 22 agencies that advertise volunteer opportunities at children’s homes and other agencies. Often, the volunteers pay fees for the privilege of working at the homes.
“Most of them are fake and not registered,” she says. “They use children’s photographs and misuse logos of [international nonprofits] and show a network of orphanages.”
Bhusal’s department recommended that all of those agencies be shut down, but that hasn’t happened, she says, because the government isn’t coordinated.
In many cases, the children who live in such homes aren’t orphans at all, even though the homes and agencies that advertise volunteer opportunities present them as such. According to UNICEF data, about 15,000 children lived in children’s homes before Nepal’s major earthquake in 2015, but more than 85 percent of those children had at least one living parent.
The children are used as bait to attract donations or fee-paying volunteers, according to UNICEF.
Nepalese officials say the number of orphanages and children’s homes in Nepal grew in the years immediately after a decade-long civil war ended in 2006, but there are no clear numbers on how many homes have existed in the past.
Now, there are 567 registered orphanages in Nepal that house about 16,500 children, according to data provided to Global Press Journal by the Central Child Welfare Board. An unknown number of unregistered homes are also in operation throughout the country.
Hom Ojha, a program manager at the Rural Community Development Program, says his agency has worked with foreign volunteers since 1998. He’s open about the fact that those volunteers – and the fees they pay – keep the organization and the places where they work afloat.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Fees begin at $149 and can be more than $1,000 for people who sign on to teach in local schools or work on conservation or health care projects or in children’s homes. The fees cover a volunteer’s food, lodging, transport and other basic expenses.
Dipak Adhikari, another program manager at Rural Community Development Program, says the process to get a work visa is too onerous for short-term volunteers.
“Tourists coming for a week will not follow the process,” he says.
Officials from the Nepalese government’s labor department told GPJ that work visas can be issued within 10 days, if all the correct documents are provided.
Ojha says the Rural Community Development Program has built 10 schools and orphanages, but he’s quick to differentiate his organization from others.
“Some are established with a wrong motive to earn money,” he says. “It is an easy business. You collect 10 children and make an orphanage. But not all are like this.”
Before Nepal’s 2015 earthquake, the Rural Community Development Program hosted monthly between 20 and 35 volunteers, mostly from the U.S., Australia and Europe, Ojha says. Now, he says, between five and 10 volunteers come each month. They bring food and clothes and raise desperately needed money for the children, he says.
Krishna Bishwokarma runs Relationship Nepal, a children’s home that once housed volunteers in the same facility where the children live. But government officials explained that volunteers needed to stay elsewhere, Bishwokarma says, and since then, the home has followed that guideline.
There’s never been a negative incident with a volunteer, Bishwokarma says.
“What we are doing is good,” he says.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nepali.