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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Information gathering on orphans has UN agency worried

Information gathering on orphans has UN agency worried

One of the world's largest intercountry adoption agencies has completed a nationwide

survey of children in Cambodian orphanages, photographing and fingerprinting orphans

in an study that has UNICEF concerned.

Holt International, a Christian organization responsible for more than 40,000 international

adoptions worldwide since the 1950s, was given a $58,000 grant by the United States

Agency for International Development to carry out the survey.

The study hopes to identify the number and demographics of Cambodian children in

care, including those who require permanent family placement, according to a statement

on the US embassy Web site.

It is believed to be the first baseline study of its kind. Data collection for the

three-month survey ended in late July, but it is unclear when the results will be

compiled or whether the findings will be made public.

The study has drawn criticism from UNICEF, which is worried that a detailed list

of orphans could be the "first step towards abuse" of adoptions from Cambodia,

which have previously been fraught with corruption, fraud and cases of baby-buying.

"We don't feel that it is necessary for children to be identified individually

and we understand that children are being photographed and even fingerprinted,"

said Rodney Hatfield, country representative of UNICEF.

"From UNICEF's point of view, it's not our business to interfere in what other

people are doing, but frankly speaking we don't really approve of that [study],"

Hatfield said.

He said that past experience - including a moratorium on adoptions to the US in 2002

and the conviction of Lauryn Galindo for visa fraud and money laundering last year

- had shown that intercountry adoptions from Cambodia were "ultimately a money-making"

scheme and had abused the rights of children.

Hatfield stressed that UNICEF was not against intercountry adoptions as a last resort

for children in need, but warned of turning "children into commodities."

Holt International also promotes a policy of intercountry adoption as a last option

for vulnerable children. The organization facilitates international adoptions from

12 countries, including Thailand and Vietnam, but has no program in Cambodia.

"I can report that the project [to survey Cambodian orphans] has gone very well,

is nearly completed, and we expect it will have a positive impact on children and

families in Cambodia," said Susan Soon-keum Cox, vice president of public policy

and advocacy at Holt International.

Cox referred further questions to the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

David Gainer, spokesman for the US embassy, confirmed the use of "biometric

data" such as photographs and fingerprinting in Holt International's research.

"While this survey is designed to address broader child welfare needs, it supports

our goal of protecting Cambodia's children and helping Cambodia establish a transparent

adoption system with appropriate safeguards," said Gainer.

He said a resumption of adoptions to the US was not imminent and hinged on developing

a system that considered the interests of the child, birth parents and adoptive parents.

The US Department of State and Department of Homeland Security were exploring ways

to assist Cambodia to develop an adoption framework that adhered to international

standards and the yet-to-be-passed draft law on adoptions.

"It is pre-emptive to consider a resumption of adoptions in Cambodia until the

elements of such a system are in place," Gainer said.

"We caution, however, that these proposed improvements may not be sufficient

to consider lifting the current moratorium on adoptions anytime in the future and,

in fact, such a lifting may be years away," he said.

Touch Samon, deputy general director of the technical department at the Ministry

of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSAVY), said the ministry

was aware of the Holt International survey and that he had received a letter from

the US embassy about the project.

"They want to help Cambodian children and before they start helping, they have

to do research in advance," Samon said. "I do not know for sure how they

are going to help."

"We are very happy to hear about the project. It would help Cambodian children

a lot to have better living conditions," he said.

Samon said Holt International would give him a copy of the survey when it is finished

but said he had not yet received it.

Using the UNICEF definition of an "orphan" - a child under the age of 18

whose mother or father, or both, are dead - Hatfield estimated there were about 60,000

Cambodian orphans but was unsure of statistics for children with no parents.

A draft law on adoptions has been completed and will be sent to the Office of the

Council of Ministers this week, Hatfield said, but noted that the approval process

is expected to take a further six to 18 months.

In the meantime, UNICEF will support a delegation of MOSAVY staff for a study tour

to China next month to see the adoption system there and discuss ways to implement

the law on adoptions when it is passed.

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