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The Orphanages in Cambodia That Do More Harm Than Good

Friday, December 18, 2015
PHNOM PENH: There is no need for an appointment or to show identification and no questions are asked at this so called "orphanage".

Strangers can walk off the street into bedrooms, where up to 12 children sleep crammed together on stained mattresses.

The smiling children know the routine - they run to the visitors, calling out in unison: "Hello, welcome!"

But strangers should not come to this house tucked away in a Phnom Penh suburb, behind high iron gates, which is home to 65 children aged between five and 17.

International research shows that orphanages and residential care institutions take a toll on children's emotional and personal development because they are separated from their families.

This leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and seemingly endless broken relationships.

Much of their plight comes at the hands of mostly well-intentioned foreigners. Australians are among the largest donors and volunteers in Cambodia's booming orphanage industry.

A newly released survey of tourists in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap, near the Angkor Wat temple complex, found that 70 percent of potential volunteers at the country's orphanages believe that residential care is the best way for children from poor families to get access to an education.

According to Friends International, a non-government social enterprise organisation , 75 percent of potential volunteers were not aware that most children in residential centres in Cambodia are not orphans and 60 percent did not know orphanages were sometimes run as profit-making businesses.

Despite a five-year campaign by Friends International and other NGOs warning that children should be kept in their communities except in emergencies, the number of children living in 600 orphanages and residential care centres in Cambodia has grown to a record 47,900, according to a recent survey by the Cambodian government and the UN children's agency UNICEF.

Indeed, the number of orphanages across the country has doubled in the past five years, while the number of orphans has dramatically decreased.

There are now seven times more children in Cambodia's institutions than there were in the early 1980s, when the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's murderous rule left an estimated 74,000 children without parents.

The government, under pressure from UN agencies and a consortium of more than 50 NGOs, is moving to implement a law requiring that children's residential centres be approved and registered, which is aimed at forcing many to close.

The government wants to reduce the number of children in orphanages by 30 percent in three years.

But Cambodia's supervising ministry of social affairs employs only 14 social workers in a country where corruption is endemic and unscrupulous orphanages have flourished for decades.

Social workers warn that many of the children have become money-making tourist attractions and sexual abuse is suspected of being rife in centres where there are few checks to identify western child abusers who travel to Cambodia to gain easy and unsupervised access to children in care.

The former director of an anti-pedophile NGO has been charged with sexually abusing 11 boys under his care in an orphanage he headed.

In the early afternoon, half a dozen children from Phnom Penh's Poor Street Children and Orphans Training Centre rehearse for a classical Khmer dance and monkey performance a few hours later ofor well-heeled foreign tourists sipping sunset cocktails.

The children are given $US1 to buy food or pencils or books following the performance, while the orphanage pockets $130 from a tour operator.

The founder of the orphanage spent months in jail before being acquitted of sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl under his care.

The centre's manager, Chanthou Thoeun, bows and brings his hands together at chest level in a traditional Khmer greeting, telling visitors they are free to interact with the children, whom he at first says are orphans, but when pressed admits most of them are not.

"The children go to school but there are difficulties finding enough money to buy food for them . . . there is malnutrition . . . we hope you can help us," he says, signalling that a donation is expected from visitors.

Ame, a volunteer in her mid-20s from California who has been living with the children for almost three weeks, sprawls on the floor of a bedroom watching cartoons on her smartphone with three children.

"I love the kids. This has been an incredible experience . . . I didn't know anything about Cambodia . . . the toilets have no paper and you have to squat," she says.

"I will be blessed when I return home."

Research shows volunteers like Ame usually leave orphanages feeling good that they have helped poor and abandoned children, and who probably showered them with affection.

But they will have almost certainly added to the psychological harm to the children, who become adept at appearing cute and engaging with strangers, behavior that is often mistaken for genuine friendliness and happiness

Fifteen year-old Ben Raksa, who has been at the orphanage for 10 years, says the children are taught to impress the strangers who arrive every hour or so because they donate money so that he and other children can be educated. .

Raksa says one Australian couple in their mid-50s took a group of the children for a beach holiday. "We were very happy," he says.

About a quarter of Cambodia's residential care centres are run by religious organisations, most of them with proselytising missions, adding to the difficulties of the children, who are often overwhelmed as they try to integrate back into a deeply Buddhist society when they leave the institutions.

The US-supported Foursquare Church, which runs 100 centres across Cambodia, resists the residential care label and the regulations that come with it, declaring on its website: "We do not run orphanages. We run churches, always have. Always will! And healthy churches care for the homeless."

A Phnom Penh Post reporter who visited one of the centres on an island in Cambodia's central Kampong Chhang province reported in late November that children were living in sleeping on torn mattresses in rooms that reeked of urine.

Sebastien Marot, executive director of Friends International, says one of the biggest concerns is the recruitment of volunteers from universities in Australia and other countries to work in orphanages.

A new Friends International campaign centres on the message: "Your donations don't help orphans - they create them," a blunt message to thousands of well-intentioned Australians who sponsor children, or spend weeks or even months working in orphanages or residential centres.

"Guys, stop. Think about what you are doing. This should not be about doing something so you can feel good about yourself," Marot says, adding that Australians should support programs that help keep families together, such as income generation and social support programs.

"Kids are dying in our hospitals every day through a lack of blood . . . why not help by donating some blood? Things like that," he says.


Comments have been disabled for this article.


We could directly fly them to Germany and Sweden. All of them.

Posted by Mere on December 18, 2015 17:48


Wow. Schooled.

A very sad and scary but informative read.

Thank you.

Posted by James on December 19, 2015 19:26


In the Philippines it's common to see women with infants begging on the streets. These are usual Varay people and the babies are often not even their own. They are rented out and then drugged with alcohol or similar to make them appear unwell.

Posted by Herbert on December 19, 2015 21:10

Editor Comment:

The Philippines can be a distressing place when a tourist is offered a child to take home with them.


About 15y ago I was having a haircut in KL and the discussion veered into children. I said I have none but would like to. She told me to come back the next day with USD 100 and I'd have a newborn baby girl to take home with me.

I tried to explain that's not quite what I meant but she was offended and thought I wanted to haggle as if the price was too high.

Equally long ago I was on the Micronesian island of Kosrae and at the airport a young girl, perhaps no more than 15y old wanted me to take her infant baby with me to the next island of Pohnpei. There would be someone to receive the baby from me she claimed.

Sure there would and in any case I did not want to have a conversation with customs officials about how I came into the possession of an infant.

" A girl just gave it to me at the airport " would most likely not have resolved that situation.

Near my home here in Chalong is a Burmese workers camp. The parents go to work around 7.30am every day and return around 9.30pm. There are about 15 kids who stay home all day, ranging from infants to apprx 15y old.

I've been fixing their bicycles and doing other small stuff to help and asked if any of them has or does go to school. None ever has. When asking this question I could see the faces of the older kids clearly showing they understand what they are missing out on.

What future do these kids have being undocumented and getting no education. It's just another generation of people being raised to be exploited as illegal migrant workers.

Posted by Herbert on December 20, 2015 10:36

Editor Comment:

There are certainly a number of schools in Ranong for Burmese worker children and we've heard of one or two on Phuket but never been able to locate them. Years ago, a boy was on Laem Singh beach every day, most likely the offspring of Rohingya. He picked up English and Italian quickly as he grew up.


The Good Shepherd Phuket

offers education to Burmese children, among others. Rotary Club has provided them with support, among others computers with licensed software to enable the children to learn skills beyond simple manual labor.

The problem however is that even if education is available, most migrant children have no means to get to the school, unless it was within safe walking distance.

The disparity between reality and the government press releases in regard to migrant workers rights and protection is huge. Even I as a virtual bystander can spot this so I can only imagine what those who work full time in charities and Human rights organizations get to see on a daily basis.

We read about these matters back home on a weekly basis but only when you actually get to know such people in person and see the gravity of their situation first hand does the human tragedy really sink in.

It's so easy to forget that behind every number in the statistics is an actual human being.

Posted by Herbert on December 20, 2015 14:16

Thursday May 30, 2024
Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa


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