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,"
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,"
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,"
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,"
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
"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."