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],"
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.