The Orphanage Business

Jody Hanson, Ph.D / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Children are not tourist attractions. Photo credit ChildSafe

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – As the number of tourists visiting Cambodia increases, so do the number of orphanages. It has become big business. According to UNESCO, the number of orphanages in the Kingdom has increased by 75 percent since 2005. The contradiction is that since the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979, the number of orphans has actually decreased.
An estimated 77 percent of the residents in these so-called orphanages have at least one parent who is alive. These children are, in fact, economic refugees. The parents are told that their children will receive an education and have a chance to get a better life. Sometimes children are bought or borrowed to fill the institution when foreign visitors are expected.
How to get the money
“It is hideous exploitation,” said an NGO worker who asked to remain anonymous. “These so-called-orphans are told to hug foreigners. And when they see a white face they start to chant their ABCs to show  them that they are learning English. When people see the dire situations these kids live in,  it tugs at their occidental heart strings and they start making donations. A large percent of the money ends up supporting the luxurious lifestyles of the directors and the CEOs: villas, SUVs, first-class plane tickets.”
James Sutherland of Friends International which powers the ChildSafe Network said, “Visits and donations from tourists and overseas people simply support a severely flawed system. In fact, in some cases centers are run as businesses, pure and simple, with the children as commodities.”  
Keep the Kids in the Families
To put orphanages in perspective, just think about the Canadian Native American residential schools and the “lost generation” of Aboriginals in Australia. The governments in these respective countries have made formal apologies and are in the process of paying out millions of dollars in compensation. These situations share a number of similarities with the current trend of orphanage tourism in Cambodia. These include being removed from the family, living in a residential space, being deprived of learning parenting skills and not having the support of siblings.
According to Ross Wright, a 69-year old Australian who has run the non-profit CHOICE project since 2006, “Keep the kids with the families. Even if the parents die or have to go off to work, there is the extended family that will often look after them.”
“For example, there was a young girl in one of the villages I worked with who didn’t want to keep her baby because she had been raped. However, the grandmother wanted to adopt the little boy, but she didn’t have enough money to raise him. We bought infant formula and a bag of rice a month for her and now the little tike is doing very well” he said. 
He also feels that there are foster-care options where the children can live with a Khmer family. Supplementing a local family to look after a child is considerably cheaper than sponsoring one at an orphanage. The culture of Cambodia revolves around the extended family and they will be far better cared for. Further, they will also be able to learn parenting skills and have sibling support.
James Sutherland said, “The argument is that in countries such as Cambodia, the situation is ‘different’ but it isn’t. The government is committed to an alternative care approach where the focus is on keeping families together. They consider, however, that placing children with the extended family or in foster care is preferable to orphanages.” 
Think before you volunteer or visit
Tourists see the poverty in Cambodia and want to do something to improve the situation. Others are lured in by “volunteer tourism” packages that cover airfares, meals and accommodation. People want to help, but they don’t know how to do it or where to start. 
James Sutherland said, “Our advice to the general ‘voluntourist’ or tourist visitor is do not visit orphanages. Presenting documentation such as a passport or signing a ‘code of conduct’ are  inadequate precautions to take when you are enabling access to vulnerable children.”
“There is certainly a place for volunteering in developing countries where skilled people can assist to build the  skills of local staff. However, allowing unskilled people direct access to children is potentially more  harmful, rather than helpful.”
“Imagine if you tried to go and visit or work in a children’s home in, say, Australia, or the UK, or the USA. There is no way that someone without a professional childcare background with the required police checks and clearances would be allowed through the door.” 
“Another major problem,” said a non-profit worker who asked that her name not be used, “is that volunteers spend a couple of weeks bonding with a child or two and they become friends. Sort of like surrogate parents, really. Then the volunteer goes home and the child feels abandoned. First, by the parents and then by a volunteer or two. Some kids get to the point where they simply can’t develop trusting relationships because of the experiences they have of being rejected. They withdraw and don’t interact in a healthy or positive way.”
“There is growing evidence of the negative impact upon the psychological health of children. These include attachment disorders, because of being exposed to a ‘revolving door’ of visitors and volunteers. Often volunteer placements are short term,” James Sutherland agreed.
James Sutherland summed it up when he said, “Of course most people who want to visit and volunteer mean well and have good intentions. However, we would urge them to think again about what their motivation to help really involves. We suggest they redirect their urge to assist. That way they can seek out and support those organizations which are working to keep families together and building the capacity of the communities. This is far more productive than supporting organizations which are, in truth, breaking families apart.”

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