Operation Bacoli – stopping demand for orphanage visits

Border force agents speaking with a traveller in London Heathrow airport

In October 2022, the Safeguarding and Modern Slavery unit of Border Force teamed up with us and ABTA, the tourism industry body, to #EndOrphanageTourism.

Here, Sarah McManus, Operational Lead at Border Force’s National Safeguarding and Modern Slavery Team, writes a guest blog reflecting on the success of our operation to raise awareness amongst travellers at three UK airports.

Although I’m used to 4am starts from my years with Border Force, much of that shift work, it never gets much better.

Sometimes though, when it’s for a cause that’s close to your heart, that can put a spring back in your step. That’s why, when we launched ‘Operation Bacoli’ In October 2022, to mark Anti-Slavery Week and EU Anti-Trafficking Day, I was leading from the front.

Cutting off demand for orphanages

Operation Bacoli was a 4 day, multi-site initiative to raise awareness of the harms of orphanage tourism amongst the travelling public. It ran from Friday 14 until Tuesday 18 October 2022, at our three busiest UK airports Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow. A hugely successful operation, it saw my colleagues and I engage hundreds of the travelling public in conversations about the harm orphanages wreak on society, in places where orphanage tourism is rife.

We targeted terminals and times when travellers were flying to orphanage tourism hotspots like South East Asia – Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – or the connecting flights that would take them there.

We handed out leaflets, had banners in prominent spots with a footfall of thousands, and welcomed colleagues from the orphanage tourism taskforce, ABTA and Hope and Homes for Children to Heathrow for the day to help out. Our aim was to engage as many travellers as possible with our simple message, “Orphanages harm children, don’t visit or donate to them on holiday”.

Border force officers Kate Goldstone (L) and Sarah McManus (R), smiling after a successful operation at London Heathrow.

Public support

You never know how people will react to campaigns like this, but the overwhelming majority of travellers I spoke to were really positive about the campaign, and interested to learn more about it.

“I had no idea anything like this went on! It’s really shocking isn’t it.”

Traveller to Dubai, Terminal 3, London Heathrow Airport

Most people don’t realise that orphanages like these are businesses, which exploit children. They separate them from their families and traffick them into abuse and neglect, just to extract money from tourists. Just like I didn’t, when I visited girls performing traditional Thai dances in just such a place, many years ago on holiday with my husband. Like most tourists, I only wanted to enjoy some local culture on holiday and give a little money to support the children I’d met.

If I had known where my money was going, I would never have paid for that trip.

Imagine unvetted strangers paying to walk into your local primary school, to watch your children’s school play. Then you start to get a feeling of why we should all be uneasy about these practices.

So that’s why I’m determined travellers have all the information they need to make informed decisions while they’re away. Border Force has such a vital role in safeguarding children, I’m delighted we could support this campaign.