Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Three years ago, Cambodia’s minister of social Affairs announced 70 privately run orphanages would be closed, effective immediately. An investigation, he said, had found these centres did not provide basic care and security for children living there. They had to shut down.
The announcement came on the heels of a UNICEF-supported study on orphanages in Cambodia, which showed their dire state. Funded by well-meaning foreigners, orphanages had become a lucrative business model. The majority of children – a whopping 77 percent – weren’t even orphans.
In most cases, their parents agreed to send them to an orphanage because they were too poor to provide for their basic needs, mostly education and healthcare.
For too long orphanages flourished and operated without any accountability and now the government would carry out rigorous controls, shut down orphanages, and start reintegrating children with their families.
But more than three years later, little, if anything, has changed for the better. In fact, Cambodia today has more orphanages than in 2011, UNICEF told Al Jazeera.
“Despite government efforts to close the institutions that do not meet the Minimum Standards of Alternative Care, or have incidents of child abuse, in 2013 the number of residential care facilities continued to grow,” Denise Shepherd-Johnson, chief of communication at UNICEF Cambodia, said in an email.
In 2011, officially registered orphanages numbered about 210. Today they are up, at 225.
“There are many different types of orphanages and each may have different motives behind their orphanage model,” Shepherd-Johnson said, but many of the newly established centres were faith-based and funded by overseas donors.
‘Church orphan homes’
With a total of 106 “church orphan homes”, Foursquare Children of Promise (FCOP) is one of the largest providers of orphanages in Cambodia.
“We just opened seven new ones up north for the tribal people,” FCOP co-founder Sou Olbrich told Al Jazeera, referring to ethnic minorities in the remote Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces.
In its 2014 brochure, FCOP described how the organisation is “building the kingdom of God” with the help of the Foursquare Youth, residents and former residents of “church orphan homes” who hold “youth evangelism crusades”.
Olbrich said more than 2,000 children are under FCOP’s care, though how many are actually orphans is not clear.
Some orphanages, where the conditions were very bad, I ordered them to shut down, and a year later, they come to me and ask for help because they can't take care of the children anymore.
Olbrich said she’s serving the country “by God’s grace”, and she doesn’t understand the criticism of the orphanages – pointing out they have an understanding with officials to do “whatever the government says”, and that the children there were free to leave whenever they wanted.
And as far as the Ministry of Social Affairs and the director of child welfare, Oum Sophannara, are concerned, the government did close 70 FCOP orphanages in 2012 – FCOP “church orphan homes” that still operate, but are now considered community-based care centres.
“I don’t think it’s really an orphanage, because the children come to eat and pray and to stay there during the night, but they don’t have to stay there,” Oum told Al Jazeera.
Generally, Oum said figures on the subject are misleading, as many institutions operate as orphanages, but aren’t labelled as such. “If the number [of orphanages] decreased or increased, it’s hard to say,” he said.
A mammoth task
Oum is confronted with a mammoth task. The government believes orphanages should be a last resort, but Oum operates with a total of just four inspectors, and some institutions simply ignore orders, he said.
“Some orphanages, where the conditions were very bad, I ordered them to shut down, and a year later they come to me and ask for help because they can’t take care of the children anymore. So they never closed,” Oum said.
Provincial authorities continued to permit new orphanages to open, with many not registered at all.
When Oum’s team and UNICEF worked on the 2011 study, they found about 60 orphanages that were operating under the radar.
“Of course that’s against the law … So why do we not shut them down? Because, how do you reintegrate all those children? That’s 3,000 children. How do you reintegrate so many? You can’t just send them back. You have to follow up with the families and make sure they are okay,” he said.
Orphanages must work to reintegrate children with their families, he said, even if that meant they would work towards putting themselves out of business.
Some orphanages have asked UNICEF for assistance and genuinely tried to reintegrate children, Shepherd-Johnson said.
“At the same time, other orphanages resist and even in some cases disturb the process of family reintegration, trying to convince families to send their children who have recently been reintegrated back to the orphanages,” she said.
Grace Zhou, lead researcher from Duke University of a forthcoming report on reintegration from institutional care centres, also found proper reintegration is rare. Zhou told Al Jazeera although most institutions she had worked with in Battambang province had reintegration policies, the process often only started once children threatened to run away, or families demanded their return.
“Of the 25 participants in our study, only three were intentionally reintegrated,” she told Al Jazeera in an email.
Funding for such reintegration processes and community-based care of real orphans, or children living in poverty, was an issue, she said.
“The key for both child institutions and the government is prioritising and improving reintegration practices … [I]nstitutions should only admit children into residential care when there is no community-based alternative. In many cases, a child can live at home with support. Poverty should not be the reason to separate a family,” Zhou said.
‘Children are not tourist attractions’
While the government is trying to get the orphanages under control, NGOs are aiming to discourage foreigners from supporting a system that divides families for financial profits.
In developed countries we strive to keep kids out of institutions, and provide social and family support structures. And there's no reason why this can't happen in countries like Cambodia.
“Children Are Not Tourist Attractions” was the headline of a widely successful ad campaign from Friends International, a child welfare NGO working with vulnerable and marginalised children. In the ad, two young children are sitting in a glass cubicle, swarmed by tourists taking photographs.
“We ask them [tourists] to think of being responsible tourists” and to not support a flawed system, James Sutherland, the international communications coordinator at Friends International, told Al Jazeera. About three million tourists have seen the ad, Sutherland said, and orphanage tourism is now frowned upon by many.
The next step is to tackle overseas donors who, like tourists, often act with the best intentions, but lack the necessary information to see that they are keeping an exploitative industry running.
“What we say is, ‘support the organisations who are working with families, who are creating job opportunities in villages and education opportunities’. If the resources are not spent on institutions but on family-based care, we would see kids thriving in their communities,” he said.
“In developed countries we strive to keep kids out of institutions, and provide social and family support structures. And there’s no reason why this can’t happen in countries like Cambodia.”
Follow Denise Hruby on Twitter: @nisnis