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Orphanage under fire

An Australian-run orphanage in Battambang is under scrutiny by local officials and rights groups following a protest on Tuesday morning during which children it is caring for said they were not getting enough food to eat and accused staff of corruption.

Staff from the rights group Licadho and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited the facility on Tuesday, along with several local officials, to discuss allegations made by children and youths with the orphanage’s staff.

“We will monitor the orphanage and follow up if the necessary changes are not made,” Licadho investigator Sun Tek said yesterday, adding that he had told orphanage staff to stop using obscene language with the children.  

Sun Tek said they were told by an expatriate manager of the orphanage that the matter was “internal”, and that the protest had been a reaction to new disciplinary measures and not the result of mistreatment.

According to its website, the orphanage focuses on assisting Cambodian children whose parents died of AIDS. It has been operating since 2004 and describes itself as “not-for-profit with tax deductibility status”. It uses a sponsorship model to finance its operations: its website offers visitors a selection of photos of children to choose from, with costs varying between children.

Numerous staff at Hope for Cambodian Children did not answer phone calls yesterday, but youths and children at the orphanage told The Post that they had protested because they were not getting enough food and could not afford school fees.

They also accused the orphanage's accountant and director of misappropriating donations intended for them.  

They explained that they held a protest inside the compound on Tuesday morning after their complaints to local officials went unanswered. Dozens of children lined up inside the gated complex, from which they need permission to leave, and shouted to passers-by, pleading for help.

“We don’t get enough food to eat,” said Sar Salon, 21. She said she had been living at the orphanage for five years.

Ing Kim Kheang, 20, said that gifts sent to them, such as clothing, were diverted to children of staff.

“We are skinny now because we don’t get enough to eat,” he added.

Sok Sambath, chief of Sangke district’s Norea commune, said he was not permitted to attend Tuesday’s meeting.  He said security would not let him past the gate, even when he informed them he was there on behalf of the government.

“I’ve received complaints from children who say they are not getting enough food. I want to investigate but I have no right to enter their centre,” Sok Sambath said, adding that the orphanage had told him the protest was an “internal matter”.

Sar Salon said the problems began on July 1. She said that before then all the children were fed from one central kitchen in the facility.

Since then they have to cook at each of the group homes they live in, she said, explaining that some of the eight “homes” have as many as 20 orphans.

Each house gets from 30,000 to 40,000 riels (US$7.50 to $10) a day to feed the children residing in it, she said.

“When we ate in a big group, we had enough because small children only eat a little. But now we eat soup with vegetables and we get no meat.”

Ing Kim Kheang accused the orphanage’s accountant and director, who are allegedly in-laws, of stealing money and goods.

Financial reports from the foundation that funds the orphanage show a steep drop in funding from 2009 to 2010. In 2009 it received A$218,000 in donations. This fell to A$130,918 last year.

The foundation has not yet released it report for the last fiscal year, which ended the day before the children say they began going hungry.

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