Governments, faith-based groups and churches, aid agencies and volunteer tourists, who donate cash and goods to orphanages or build and refurbish children’s homes and other institutions, may be inadvertently funding human trafficking.
Poor and disabled children, locked away and out of sight from families and their communities, are sitting ducks for traffickers and pedophiles. And nefarious staff are often the beneficiaries of perverse transactions where captive children are the commodity.
My organization, Disability Rights International (DRI), recently released a report — “No Way Home: The Exploitation and Abuse of Children in Ukraine’s Orphanages” — following a three year investigation of the plight of children living in institutional care.
DRI found that children are at risk of being trafficked for sex, labor, pornography and organs in a country that is a known hub for human trafficking.
Some 82,000 children are said to live in these facilities, although no one seems to know for sure. Some Ukrainian activists put the number closer to 200,000.
The 2014 U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) stated that, “Children in orphanages and crisis centers continue to be particularly vulnerable to trafficking within Ukraine.”
Inside orphanages, DRI found rampant sexual violence, abuse and rape were commonplace. Children are often recruited directly from orphanages for sex and labor according anti-trafficking organizations in Ukraine.
“There’s huge sexual abuse within the orphanages... So this is a push factor that gets children involved in sexual exploitation, even before they grow up. They’re already used to sexual abuse,” said a Ukraine counter-trafficking expert.
Producers of child pornography go directly to orphanages to seek out their prey. And institutionalized children with disabilities are particularly susceptible to becoming trafficked for their organs. One grandmother of a newborn with Down Syndrome was told by doctors that they could sell the baby for organs and get money.
Maria- - who grew up in an orphanage in Odessa — fled at the age of 15, when she feared for her life.
“Children would go into the woods behind the building and disappear,” she told DRI. “Every year 10 to 12 children went missing. We thought it was rapists and murderers. Some children were found dead but nothing was done. The staff never asked ‘why’?”
In notorious orphanage number five, a “sauna/massage parlor” was run out of the basement of the facility where the children were bought and sold for sex. The operation was shut down in 2012 but the orphanage remains open, with many of the victims still living there.
Condemned to a life of isolation and neglect, children with disabilities are transferred to adult psychiatric facilities or nursing homes when they are about 16 years old, where they will stay until they die. But those with little or no disabilities “graduate” and are ill-equipped to face life on their own. They are particularly vulnerable to be trafficked right off the street and often there are traffickers waiting for them outside the orphanage doors when they leave.
DRI interviewed former orphanage residents, many living on the streets and in sewers in Odessa and Kiev. They spoke of the sexual and physical violence, beatings and forced labor they had been subjected to as children living in orphanages.
“I was raped and then I raped other boys who were younger. I don’t want to talk about it,” said one orphan graduate.
“My friend in the orphanage was raped, but the police never came. I meet many orphans on the street who have escaped orphanages because the staff scare them,” said another.
Orphan graduates complained of having to work in the fields, up to 12 hours a day, on orphanage-owned farms. Some said they were beaten if they refused to do assigned work and others were sent home with staff to cook and clean in their homes — all without pay.
The revenue stream generated from isolated orphans even extends to so-called volun-tourism and orphan vacations - highly suspect and unregulated programs whereby well-intentioned westerners pay to volunteer in orphanages for a few weeks or take a child into their home for a vacation from the orphanage.
Unencumbered access to already emotionally frail children further exposes them to traffickers and pedophiles. DRI interviewed one U.S. family who paid $2,900 to host two, young Ukrainian orphan girls, without any home visit or background check.
There is a myriad of social science and children’s rights research documenting the many dangers and consequences of raising children in orphanages and institutions around the world. And the human trafficking of children living in orphanages is not just a Ukraine problem, but a global one.
No donor would ever intentionally help support such a heinous crime. But until the flow of money is diverted to assist vulnerable families — rather than funding orphanages — that is exactly what is being done.