Cambodia’s invisible children: Government ‘unaware’ of half of orphanages
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Cambodia’s invisible children: Government ‘unaware’ of half of orphanages

By Alexandra Demetrianova

ORPHANAGES in Cambodia are often operated without government’s knowledge and therefore tens of thousands of children are invisible to the system. More than half of residential child care centers in Cambodia are unregistered and completely off government’s radar according to a new report by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY) and UNICEF Cambodia.

The report, released last week, mapped residential child care facilities in five high priority provinces – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kandal and Preah Sihanouk. The results were astonishing. There were 56 percent more children in orphanages than previously estimated by the Cambodian government. The reason for the loophole is simple – authorities previously only counted statistics for registered child care facilities. It turns out, half of them have never registered and the children they care for are unaccounted for by the authorities.

In the five mapped provinces, a total of 26,159 young people were found to be living in 401 child care institutions. Those included 267 institutional care centers, 134 informal facilities, such as group homes, boarding schools, pagodas, transitional homes and forms of emergency accommodation. Roughly two-thirds of the youth in all the institutions were under the age of 18.

Concerns include overcrowding, exploitation, deliberately poor conditions to attract donors funding.

The report says that in the five provinces researched, 139 residential care institutions were registered and known to the Ministry of Social Affairs. Those had been inspected back in 2014. But the mapping also identified additional 267 residential care institutions, whose existence the government was not aware of. This is a 92 percent increase, report says.

“This was mainly due to the fact that only those residential care institutions with a memorandum of understanding with the ministry had been inspected,” claimed the Ministry.

“The findings confirm our long-held concerns over an uncontrolled increase of residential care institutions in the country, putting the well-being and safety of children living in unmonitored institutions at risk,” Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth said in a statement.

By law, all orphanages and child care facilities must be registered by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation. But as the recent report shows, law and practice are two different things. With half of orphanages unregistered in the five high priority provinces of Cambodia, they are in fact invisible to the system and so are the tens of thousands of children they care for. With such practice, authorities have no way of checking the facilities, having oversight of their practices and identifying abuse or child trafficking.

Unregulated child care institutions in Cambodia raise “a number of serious concerns”, suggests the report; including “overcrowding, exploitation, deliberately poor conditions to attract donors funding”, according to James Sutherland of Friends International, who had also provided support in the survey.

Mapping of residential child care centers in Cambodia has been pushed for by UNICEF, who participated in the survey and the investigations in the five high priority provinces. Those have been chosen because they are believed to have the highest number of orphanages in the country. The recent report is part of a long-term campaign by UNICEF in Cambodia to place orphaned children in foster care and community homes, where they can grow up in an environment as close as possible to regular families. Family and community are two powerful cultural phenomenons in Cambodia. Children and youth who grow up in institutional care without a family and a community can experience hardship throughout their lifetime.

The UNICEF campaign and government efforts to put more regulations in place resulted in a government sub-decree last October, which made it mandatory for all residential child care facilities to register with Ministry of Social Affairs. This looked promising, because it gave orphanages two options: register or be closed. But now, more than five months later, it can be seen, that not much has been done to enforce the sub-decree, as half of child care institutions are still slipping through government oversight and the rights of children are at risk of being violated.

Under the new regulations and enforcement, the Ministry of Social Affairs will not accept any new applications from residential child care institutions until all current facilities have been evaluated. Inspections should begin after Khmer New Year in mid-April. “If possible, we will inspect all of them,” said the MoSVY. The Ministry will also forbid admission of children to NGO-run facilities without its authorization, particularly the placement of children under age of 3; and lastly establish a rapid-response team to deal with cases of abuse or non-compliance.

The eye-opening report by Ministry of Social Affairs and UNICEF should prompt more action and enforcement. The Ministry aims to reintegrate 30 percent of the children included in the report by 2018 and move them from residential care to families. But that will need resources.

“The government should allocate more resources for basic services and recruit a sufficient number of social workers to reach this goal,” said Bruce Grant, chief of child protection for UNICEF Cambodia.

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An orphanage on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Pic: AP.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia should reduce the number of children put into care without compelling reasons. Statistics show that three-quarters of children in orphanages in Cambodia have at least one living parent. Orphanages and residential child-care facilities sprang up in the 1980s and 1990s after the Khmer Rouge regime and decades of war. In practice, orphanages have since become places to escape poverty and children with living parents or extended families have been put in institutionalized care based on the need for on malnutrition and food security, better education and more hopeful future.

But poverty shouldn’t be a reason for a child to grow up without a family and community, especially in context of Cambodia and local culture, where family is so important. Grandparents and other family members often care for children, whose parents migrate for work or are deceased.

Moreover, Cambodia’s Policy on Alternative Care for Children states that institutional care should be a temporary solution and a last resort. According to the recent report and residential child care institutions surveyed in the five high priority provinces, 65 percent of these provide long-term care.

As a country with long history of wars – devastation by Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge – Cambodia has become infamous for children trafficking, child prostitution, active pedophile rings and so called “orphanage tourism”.

According to Havoscope report: Black crime “How much does a human cost?” one can buy a child virgin in Cambodia for US$500-800. And some powerful pedophile rings have been taking advantage of the poverty in Cambodian countryside, where families struggle to feed their many offspring.

Orphans are extremely vulnerable when it comes to child prostitution, sex abuse and trafficking.

Russian pedophile Alexander Trofimov was one of the most notorious arrested in Cambodia, where he had been found to abuse underage Cambodian girls in 2006. Both in Cambodia and Russia he was a repeated child abuse offender. Dozens of foreigners have been jailed and deported to face trial in home countries for child sex crimes ever since Cambodian government launched its campaign against pedophilia in 2003.

There are many public-oriented campaigns to protect children and orphans running in Cambodia, like Friends International’s “Children are not tourist attractions”. Aimed at protecting children’s rights, this campaign particularly targets orphanages, where visiting foreigners are often taken for a sight-seeing tour. This is a way of either raising funds for the NGO behind the orphanage or offer children for international adoptions. The well publicized Child Safe Network created by Friends International brings together all Cambodians, but mainly business owners and taxi drivers, giving them training, certifying them as “child safe” and turning them into public guardians of children.

But child abuse is by far not only a foreign problem imported into poverty-stricken Cambodia with pedophile rings or the international adoptions sector. Locals can abuse children, too. Many of the children working in the local sex industry are underage. This is often driven by demand from Cambodians, and by extremely poor families who choose to send their children to earn money in brothels.

Orphans are extremely vulnerable when it comes to child prostitution, sex abuse and trafficking. In Cambodia, the past has proven, that this can happen in residential child care institutions as well. Last year some 200 children were removed from up to seven orphanages because of low standards or particularly because of sexual abuse by the social workers. Between 2012 and 2015, out of 71 residential child-care institutions investigated, 17 were shut down due to sexual abuse of children, according to Action Pour Les Enfants (Action for the children), a French-based INGO.