​Orphanage tourism: a questionable industry | Phnom Penh Post

Orphanage tourism: a questionable industry


Publication date
09 March 2007 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Sam Rith and Tracey Shelton

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The sign on the orphanage wall is a happy one: young Khmer children holding hands

and beaming welcoming smiles.

Three young boys stand on their school desks pretending to be famous singers as the older children perform traditional song and dance for visiting tourists at Cambodian Light Children's Association Orphanage.

"Play with the kids, hold some hands, see the smiles ... they love visitors,"

it reads.

According to activists and NGOs, "orphanage tourism" is a growth industry.

Tour guides, tuk-tuk drivers and motodups now regularly include "orphanage tours"

in their pitch to visitors, and many take a subsequent cut for their troubles.

At the orphanages, the visitors are greeted by children who dance and sing, while

the managers appeal for donations to help fund the orphans' care.

But rights groups and protection agencies are becoming increasingly critical of the

poor regulation and monitoring of orphanages, with those that actively solicit tourists

of greatest concern.

"This kind of 'orphanage tourism' raises many questions," Kek Galabru,

founder and director of rights NGO Licadho told the Post. "Are visitors properly

screened and supervised to ensure the safety of the children? What financial accountability

is there to guarantee that donations actually go toward the care of the children?

How can an orphanage which relies on day-to-day donations possibly ensure long-term,

good quality care of children?"

Last year Belgian Philippe Dessart was convicted of abusing a 13-year-old child he

met through orphanage sponsorship. Already convicted of sex offenses with children

in his home country, he was sentenced to 18 years.

Katherine Keane, country director of Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), a child protection

NGO, said Dessart was a prime example of how traveling sex offenders can gain access

to young children.

"Very few of these orphanages have proper security in place," Keane said.

"There are no background checks on workers or volunteers. Staff don't have a

proper understanding of the risks. Often visitors can enter and have open access

to young children."

Keane said that beyond registration as an NGO, there are very few checks and little

monitoring of orphanages.

"It's up to the organization itself to implement proper security and policies

to protect the children in their care." Keane said. "But even with the

best of intentions they do not have proper training or education to keep these children


Only the government has the power to monitor and close an orphanage.

Mao Sovadei, chief of the child welfare department of the Ministry of Social Affairs,

said the government does check orphanages, but only once a year.

"If any center does not follow the advice of the ministry, the government reminds

them of the regulations." Sovadei said. "If they repeatedly break regulations

they will be closed down."

But according to Sovadei, no orphanage has ever been closed.

Licadho and other rights groups have raised concerns about the regulation and monitoring

of orphanages - as well as the training of staff.

"Virtually anyone can start an orphanage in Cambodia," Galabru said. "There

is no requirement that staff at orphanages be trained and experienced in caring for


Galabru said there are serious issues with financial accountability, with few safeguards

in place to ensure donations actually go towards children's welfare.

She also said the economic model of an orphanage that relies on tourism is fundamentally


"How can an orphanage that relies on day-to-day donations possibly ensure long-term,

good-quality care of children?" she said.

Galabru said in the worst cases orphanages are actively expanding the definition

of "orphan" by soliciting parents with the promise of education and health


"But the conditions at the orphanage are very poor and the children are exploited

to raise money, much of which is siphoned off and not used for the children's welfare,"

she said.

In 2005, a USAID-funded survey of Cambodian orphans found that over half the children

interviewed had at least one parent alive, and one fifth had both parents living.

"The reality is that many children in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans,

but are there because of the poverty of their families," Galabru said. "These

children belong in their families, not institutions. Far more needs to be done to

support poor families."

Former staff, volunteers and children of several orphanages in Phnom Penh confirmed

systematic neglect, mismanagement, poor health care and a lack of education.

American Drew McDowell volunteered at the Cambodian Light Children's Association

(CLCA), an orphanage in Tonle Bassac, for six months in 2006.

He said he became concerned that donations were not going towards the care of the

children and hired a book keeper at his own expense to keep financial records in

both Khmer and English.

"After six weeks they refused to provide me with the receipts," he said.

McDowell said he first visited the orphanage after being solicited by a motodup at

his guesthouse. He said the driver asked him to buy a bag of rice for $25 for the


"I didn't realize at the time that rice costs $13 per bag. I assume the motodup

kept the extra money. CLCA got the rice and tried to get some cash as well,"

he said.

McDowell said the same method was used regularly to bring in tourists from at least

two other establishments.

"Everyone is moved because the children are so poor and they want to help,"

he said.

Other sources who worked at CLCA said the children regularly miss school to perform

Khmer dances for the tourists.

One boy who recently left CLCA, who did not want to be named, said when he arrived

at the orphanage he did not want to dance, but was eager to study. He said despite

many promises, the staff never registered him in school.

"If we didn't join the dance classes we had to write repetitive lines as punishment

during dance practice," he said. "They care for the children who like to

dance, but those who want to study they don't care about."

CLCA director Pat Noun said children are asked to dance twice a day because they

need exercise.

"Even if they can't dance well, they have to go to the stage because I am afraid

they will go to other places to sniff glue or take drugs," he said.

Noun confirmed that the children missed "a lot of school," but when necessary

he asked the children to request permission from their school.

Despite admitting to accepting regular donations of food and money from various donors

and tourists, Noun says the orphanage does not have enough money to look after the

children or feed them properly.

Yet the orphanage continues to take in more children.

"I want to help the poor children," Noun said. "When they come here,

if I deny them [admission], they have no money to get back home."

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