“Oui,” 16-year-old Sok Ly said with a smile, her elbows on a table in the head office of the Borey Kok Ma Battambang II orphanage, where she has lived for the past seven years. “I’m happy here – I love it.”
The seventh grader plans to be a nurse, so she began French courses a few months ago, since that’s the primary language of medical education in Cambodia. She spends hours after school poring over books at the campus library here in Battambang town’s Slaket commune, then heads out around 6pm for private French lessons paid for by the state-run residential centre. She rarely responds with the Khmer jaa – or “yes” – opting instead for the sound of her adopted language.
But Ly is not an orphan. Instead, she is among the estimated 80 percent of children who live in residential care institutions (RCIs) – or orphanages – across Cambodia despite having at least one living parent.
The vast majority of those children have been sent to institutions by their families in search of a better education, and many may now be returned home amid sweeping government reforms of orphanages. The plan calls for identifying and returning home children with parents or extended family members. In all, the goal is for 30 percent of the country’s orphanage population to head home.
In late July, the government finalised a sub-decree tasking provincial authorities with oversight of state-run orphanages, and district authorities with those run by NGOs. Commune officials, meanwhile, must identify vulnerable children that should be placed in centres and help oversee the reintegration process.
A pilot programme in Battambang saw 98 children moved from the two state-run orphanages in the province – including Ly’s – to their homes before the official rollout of the sub-decree.
But Ly says she had no interest in leaving the orphanage. “I don’t want to go because it’s different at home,” she said. Her education, most importantly, would take a massive hit, she said. Ly is one of thousands of Cambodian education refugees seeking a better life in the orphanages of their own country – a migration that has in part contributed to the number of facilities skyrocketing.
In 2005, the prevalence of orphanages began to shoot up, with those registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs having increased from 154 to 254 by 2015, according to Unicef. The number of children known to be in those facilities also rose dramatically during that time, from 6,254 to 11,171. Other data incorporating unregistered orphanages put the numbers much higher – at 406 orphanages and more than 16,500 minors, according to a 2015 Unicef census. A Columbia University report released this year estimated there are nearly 49,000 children living in institutions.
Around four out of every five of these children are thought to have been sent to the facilities by their own families. That means between 13,000 and 39,000 institutionalised “orphans”, depending on which statistics one relies on, have living family members.
“[T]he single largest contributing factor for placement in residential care is education,” according to a Unicef report on the tendency for Cambodian parents to send their children to orphanages.
Beth Rubenstein, a senior researcher and co-author of the Columbia University report, said observers could “objectively confirm [this claim] by their age of entry, which is school aged”.
According to Ros Sokha, director of the Child Welfare Department at the Social Affairs Ministry, most children entering Cambodian orphanages are 7 years old and up.
NGOs largely attribute the drastic increase of orphanages and children living in them to corruption in the industry. Orphanage owners are thought to convince parents that life in a facility would provide more opportunities and better schooling than that in an impoverished home, which is often not the case.
Some meanwhile appeal to “voluntourists” – or foreigners inclined to donate time and money during their visits to Cambodia – to pour funds into orphanage owners’ pockets, unknowingly for personal gain in many cases.
And while some orphanages, like Ly’s, do offer education benefits beyond state school education, others provide a lacklustre curriculum in private on-campus schools, Sokha said.
Nou Dalin, 53, a social worker from Cambodian Children’s Trust, a Battambang-based organisation working closely with the government on reintegrating institutionalised children, said the potential drawbacks of putting children in an orphanage go beyond schooling. “It affects the physical and mental development of the children,” she said.
The combination of distress from separation, interpreted as rejection, and neglect at understaffed centres can result in aggressive behaviour, anti-social tendencies, a decline in physical health and changes in learning development abilities, Dalin said.
In these cases, she said, “most of the time they don’t go to school regularly” – completely undercutting their parents’ intent in sending them to an orphanage in the first place. “When we consult with them, there’s only one answer they want: to reintegrate with their parents.”
In addition to these children being taken out of a family setting, these education seekers are stretching resources thin for true orphans, Sokha said.
Beginning in 2016, the Social Affairs Ministry laid the groundwork for reintegration best practices, which were finalised early this year. According to the guidelines, a child who potentially fits the profile for reintegration is identified by a social worker; the safety and living standards of their family environment are assessed; the child approves the move; a transfer is coordinated and follow-up visits are conducted.
Because more than 70 percent of children in orphanages are in the capital, and the provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang, Preah Sihanouk and Kandal, children will only be reintegrated from these areas until the end of 2018.
Thus far, roughly 500 children have completed the process, Unicef spokeswoman Iman Morooka said in an email this week, lauding the progress so far. “For [an] additional 500 children, case planning is ongoing.”
Toem Sophors, 14, was one of the children that the government identified for reintegration. Dalin assisted in the process and Sophors moved home to her mother’s house last October after 10 years of living at Borey Kok Ma Battambang II, about a 10-minute drive away.
She was hesitant to answer questions about each home, seemingly wary of saying the wrong thing in front of her mother and Dalin.
“I had to come back because I had living parents,” she said. “I kind of wanted to. I’m happy to be back with my parents.”
But since returning home, Sophors’s education has already proved worse than before, she said, with her school not offering English or computer courses. There had also been gaps in class attendance as she worked her way back into the local school’s system.
Her mother, Toem Aun, said she had reluctantly separated from her six children years ago with the impression that they would have a better education and, therefore, future.
But Sophors now lacks a network of friends to challenge her intellectually, she said. “I miss it,” Sophors said of the orphanage. “I used to study with my friends.”
According to Rubenstein of Columbia University, Cambodian students in orphanages that were surveyed in their study showed reading levels higher than among randomly selected children living in the family setting. But this does not prove that education in orphanages is superior, or that those reading levels could not have been replicated within the family setting, she said.
“When you’re looking at how well these kids are doing in terms of education, it’s hard to know . . . what these kids’ situation would be if they remained with their families,” she said. “It’s impossible to know.
“The takeaway is these families just don’t have very good options right now – otherwise residential care would not be as prevalent as it is,” she added.
The government’s solution of reintegration alone was like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound, Rubenstein added. She called on the Ministry of Education to provide more appealing options for parents to prevent families from considering alternatives like orphanages.
“If they’re going to solve the residential care issue in Cambodia, the education issue needs to be acknowledged and addressed,” she said.
Try Peng Hun, 22, agreed. He was sent to Kien Khleang Orphanage Center in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district by his grandmother when he was 12 because the local school was too far away, and the informal school fees were too much of a strain on the family.
His father often kept him out of class to help on the family farm. The orphanage is fun, he said, because he gets to study English, French, Khmer traditional music, math and mechanics.
“When I was a kid, I kind of felt lonely,” Peng Hun conceded of his orphanage experience. “But now, I’ve gotten used to it.
“I know the government wants the children to be returned to their families, to be warm with them,” he added. “Okay, we would have warmth, but the future is not bright because there are no options. The future is not bright because there is not a good education.”
Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron has repeatedly called for improved access to education. Neither he nor ministry spokesman Ros Salin responded to multiple requests for comment for this article over several months, but in an interview in April, Chuon Naron acknowledged that students’ commutes were too long “and families cannot afford to send their children to school”.
According to ministry statistics for the 2016-2017 academic year, there are 151 more primary schools across the country than in the academic year ending in 2014, and 43 more secondary schools.
Though the number of schools is gradually growing and the length of the trek to classrooms shrinking, there are still an estimated 300,000 school-aged children not attending school full-time, according to the CambodianConsortium for Out of School Children, a collective of NGOs working to get students back in school long-term. Other barriers include informal class fees, a lack of disability support and programmes to help students who started late or fell behind to catch up to their cohort, they say.
For some families, sending their kids to residential centres is an all-in-one solution to avoiding some of these roadblocks. Dalin, the social worker, said that even with extra support through the reintegration process – such as bicycles to get to school, petty cash from NGOs or basic materials like papers and pencils – there are plenty of hurdles to overcome in making a smooth transition back.
“In preparing documents, some officials don’t have time or are too busy,” she said. “In transferring students back to school in the middle of the year, for example, it’s not the right time based on the Education Ministry system . . . There are complexities in the transition.”
This can create a lag in enrolment, potentially leading students to fall behind.
However, Em Hea, deputy director of the Department of Education in Phnom Penh, maintained ministry officials are available to assist in reintegration procedures as asked, but have no significant role to play in resolving the orphanage issue.
“I think parents send their own children to orphanage centres because they want to relieve their family burden, not because of the quality of education,” she said. “It’s not like state schools are not good.”