PHNOM PENH: Tara Winkler, a former NSW Young Australian of the Year, says it is "highly unethical to expose vulnerable children to serious risks in order to engage donors and raise funds".
Ms Winkler says potential abusers are not being vetted among a high volume of visitors to Cambodia's 600 orphanages and children's residential care centres who are allowed to physically interact with children in intimate ways, such as playing games and hugging.
"Even though the majority of people who want to visit centres are good people who only want to help, if they are allowed in to provide love and affection, then the same access is provided to potential predators and sex tourists," she said.
Fairfax Media has reported that strangers can walk uninvited off the street into a Phnom Penh orphanage, where they are greeted in bedrooms with children trained to engage visitors and encourage them to donate money.
A record 47,900 children are living in orphanages and residential care centres in Cambodia, despite research showing that the institutions scar their emotional and personal development through seemingly endless broken relationships, and that they should be living with their families in their own communities.
Seventy-two per cent of children in Cambodia's orphanages and children's centres have at least one parent.
In a blunt message to Australians who are believed to be the largest supporters of Cambodia's orphanages, Ms Winkler said "orphan tourism" violates a child's right to privacy.
"You wouldn't visit a group home for vulnerable children when on holiday in Australia, the UK or the USA, so why do it in countries like Cambodia?" she asked.
Ms Winkler, who established the Cambodian Children's Trust in 2007 after rescuing 14 children from a corrupt and abusive orphanage in Cambodia's Battambang province, said children should not even be in orphanages and residential centres, even those operated "with the best intentions at heart".
"They are children from poor families who have been entrusted into the care of the orphanages by their families in the misguided hope that it will lead to a path out of poverty to a better life," she said.
One Australian charity that cares for what it calls 400 at-risk and disadvantaged Cambodian children campaigns to raise more than $4 million each year.
Ms Winkler said many orphanages in developing countries are corrupt and run as profitable businesses that intentionally keep children in poverty to shock and elicit sympathy from foreigners, who are then moved to donate.
"I fell for this trap myself when I first arrived in Cambodia in 2005," Ms Winkler said.
"These orphanages generate donations which are then embezzled by corrupt orphanage staff," she said. "Even goods that are donated to the children, such as rice and toys, will often be resold after the donors have left."
Ms Winkler said she had made her own mistakes by visiting and volunteering to work in orphanages and had even set one up herself.
She said people wanting to help should support organisations working to keep families together and reintegrate children out of orphanages back to their families.
"This issue has become an international crisis in which 8 million children around the world are living in institutions despite the fact that more than 80 percent of them are not orphans," she said.
About 30 percent of the reports of sexual abuse made to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have been made by people who were abused in orphanages.
Most of Australia's orphanages closed decades ago.