Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – Most of the children at the Lotus Children’s Centre, an orphanage located away from the dust and noise of the big city, have no idea how long they’ve been here.
Sitting on the steps outside their classroom overlooking the countryside that separates the children’s centre from Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, four boys aged between seven and 11 all shrug when asked how old they were when they arrived.
“I don’t remember,” seven-year-old Otgonbayar told Al Jazeera. “I have been here a long time, since I can remember. I don’t know what happened to my family, I don’t know anything about them.”
Previously children's rights have been very vague, there was no such concept.
Little is known of the backgrounds of most of the 80 children in the orphanage. Many were abandoned at birth, sometimes in hospitals, but often at bus stops or on the side of the road.
About 18 children are new to Lotus. Before they lived in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns that was closed down after disputes with the government.
They have the same answers as Otgonbayar when asked about their past, but speak French instead – a language learned from the nuns who used to look after them.
“When the orphanage closed, some of my friends went back to their families,” said Batbayar, 11, who has stunted height caused by a lack of care when he was an infant.
“I can’t go back, but it is good here. We go to school and there is the river and the grass.”
Orphanage founder and director Didi Kalika told Al Jazeera when she arrived in Mongolia 21-years ago, economic instability and alcoholism among adults were major factors leading to the abandonment their children.
Definitive figures on the number of abandoned children are difficult to come by. Child rights advocates have said previously that thousands had been deserted by parents or orphaned in Mongolia, a northern Asian nation of nearly three million people.
Before the economic boom from mining in the early 2000s, children were often left to fend for themselves, or rounded up and put in prison cells.
The situation has improved dramatically thanks to the work of NGOs and new government initiatives such as the opening of a temporary children’s shelter last year. However, kids with mental or health disabilities often fall through the gaps with no structures in place to help them, and few education options available, Kalika said.
“The abandonment has slowed down quite a bit as the economy has improved. When they had this mining boom, they [the government] did give money to families who had children and that has improved the situation somewhat,” Kalika said.
“The mineral wealth payment meant a lot of people started looking after their kids who weren’t before. Also, when the economy was up, companies invested in us.”
As Mongolia’s economy grinds to a halt , orphanages such as Lotus are concerned abandonment rates will spike again.
The lack of government social workers and nation-wide infrastructure to support abandoned, orphaned, and abused children means that often orphanages are put under pressure to provide care for families as well.
“A lot of the time they want us to do things with the kids and their families – like follow up if we send the kids home and deal with the families. It is too much because I already have 80 kids. The government do expect a lot of us without offering financial support,” said Kalika.
“We need to deal with the kids here, we can’t deal with families on the edge. We end up giving them food items and support to make sure they still look after the children once they go back home.
Kalika said, however, the government has imposed greater regulations to ensure the safety of children. “Before no one was doing anything and the NGOs stepped in … Now we have to go through quite a few authorities to accept kids and we do get a number of inspections, so some of it is going in the right direction – I wouldn’t say all of it.”
No protection law
A major issue surrounding child protection in Mongolia is the lack of any law ensuring the rights of children. NGOs have been working to try to redress this, but the legislation is continually hitting delays in Mongolia’s parliament.
World Vision, a Christian charity operating in Mongolia, is one of many NGOs working in the sphere of child protection. The charity is working on implementing a system of “mapping” all Mongolia’s children, to make sure they are given follow up care.
Tansgmaa Tsog, public engagement manager from World Vision Mongolia, told Al Jazeera the lack of progress on the protection law was “frustrating”, but the key issue is bringing child abuse into the open.
“For me it looks like there is a lot of family violence, but it is under shadows. It is kept in the family and it is not appearing in public, and we don’t know how much it is happening.
“We have set up a free child [help] line, so children can report abuse, and we are trying to develop the mapping system so there is a process in place if a child is the victim of abuse.”
Because of the lack of a legal framework, however, charities such as World Vision are reliant on individual communities to step in and protect a child and make the abuse known.
Sometimes, in a bid to highlight issues, children’s images have been shared on social media by caseworkers and others involved.
“Someone who was working on that case revealed what had happened [on social media] and it came to public attention and caused a lot of outrage. Now incidents like this can be better prevented,” said World Vision in Mongolia’s communications manager Enkhbold Byambjav.
“It is a double-edged sword – you have to be very careful about what’s being posted. It could be done for the good of the public, but it might give the wrong idea to the wrong people.”
‘Urgent’ need for law
The only government agency concerning children is the National Authority for Children, which advises on policy rather than implementing it.
Deputy director Tumurkhuyag Enkhtaivan told Al Jazeera the NGOs were relied upon to provide services while the authority tried to push policies through government. She said she hoped a child protection law would be passed in 2015.
“Previously children’s rights have been very vague, there was no such concept. In the new law, children’s rights will be specifically mentioned,” said Enkhtaivan.
Parents and police will also need to play active roles once clear laws are established, Enkhtaivan added.
“We need to show parents they have a responsibility to their children. The passing of the law is urgent,” Enkhtaivan said. “We have to align all the laws and make sure that if a child is involved in crime, the police look at whether it is a form of child abuse and considers the rights of the child.”
Names of children quoted in this story have been changed to protect their privacy
Follow Philippa H Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart