Once upon a time, long before Angelina Jolie got a mastectomy, she adopted a Cambodian child. As a result, privileged Westerners of all nationalities flocked to the country's orphanages in the hope of simultaneously nurturing a child and their own sense of self-worth.
In 2012 alone, Cambodia was visited by 3.5 million tourists, so I guess someone was eventually bound to put two and two together and realise that the hundreds of orphanages throughout the country could be exploited into becoming a tourist attraction for the rising amount of foreign visitors.
The country's orphanage boom all began in the early 70s, when Pol Pot marauded around the country, intentionally splitting up villages, slaughtering families and imprisoning the educated populace in an attempt to win the civil war. The tactic worked for Pol and his Khmer Rouge regime, but left thousands of children displaced, so NGOs came flooding in to salvage the situation by building orphanages all over the country.
Thirty years later, Cambodia now boasts more than 500 orphanages – a figure that has doubled in the last decade, presumably because the large donations they receive are a much easier way to make money than actually working. Sadly, that nifty little ruse seems to have become public knowledge, and the exploitation of Cambodia's orphans has turned into a booming, multi-million dollar industry.
Dr Setan Lee – a Cambodian who lived through the Khmer Rouge era – has watched the spread of corruption through his country's orphanages. There are Westerners who come to Cambodia under the pretence of helping orphans, Lee told me, but "literally all they're doing is fulfilling their own lusty lifestyles" by siphoning off the donations intended for the children into their own pockets.
Foster schemes and effective family planning are arguably much better alternatives to orphanages, but unfortunately neither of them exist to a sufficient extent in Cambodia, largely due to the country's poor economy. According to Tara Winkler, founder of Cambodia’s Children’s Trust (CCT), it's that same economy and "lack of alternative support" that's making parents "feel forced to send their children away" to orphanages.
Tara continued, saying that there's a common perception among Cambodian parents that, if they send their children to orphanages, they will be provided, "an education, access to medical care and better nutrition”. That perception now means that orphanages are no longer comprised of just orphans, but also children from poor families.
In fact, according to a 2011 UNICEF study, an estimated three out four children in Cambodia's orphanages still have one living parent. That clearly seems to be dodging the definition of "orphan" a little, but those in charge couldn't care less about stuff like definitions or, say, morality, because the more children in their care, the more donations they receive to pillage for their own ends. A well-intended scheme that has now become a loophole for the corrupt, with some orphanages even offering small sums of money to parents in exchange for their children.
A number of unlicensed orphanages are now popping up around Cambodia and starting to reel the kids in. They are all, Tara tells me, “operating without official registration and without essential documentation, like child protection policies”. So we can only guess what goes on behind closed doors, but Tara is certain that, whatever it is, it's deeply corrupt in some shape or form. Dr Lee goes one step further, claiming that the children in these unlicensed orphanages are being "forced to do labour in jobs that they don't want to do”. It's Oliver Twist, only with exploitative, morally-corrupt care-takers who ruin lives, rather than charismatic weirdos who teach you how to pickpocket.
Children in these orphanages are rarely given an education, instead being put to work until the tourists come to visit, when they're wheeled out as bait for donations. Unsurprisingly, little of those donations end up being spent on their care. And it's not only the physical toll on these children that's a worry, but the damaging emotional effects that come with your parents handing you over to a workhouse where you're forced to live in worse conditions than you were at home.
Tara works with many children and families in Battambang, a region in northwest Cambodia, and her observations of the children’s feelings sum up the issue pretty concisely. “Imagine being one in 100," she says. "Imagine not really understanding why you’ve been taken away from your family, and imagine how it would feel to miss your family and siblings, knowing they’re only a few minutes down the road.”
Tara went on to warn that children being turned into “money-making tourist attractions” isn't even the most serious issue currently plaguing Cambodia's orphanages. Sexual abuse is rife, and according to Dr Lee, Western child abusers travel to Cambodia to work in its orphanages just so they can gain easy, unsupervised access to the children in care.
In 2007, Tara’s organisation, CCT, rescued 14 children from an orphanage named Sprouting Knowledge Orphans, where the director had been sexually and physically abusing the children in his care. The children, Tara told me, were “provided with so little food that they were forced to catch mice and rats to survive”. Working in the country for the last six years, Tara assures me that cases like that are endemic in Cambodia's orphanages.
Earlier this year, an Australian-run orphanage was closed down amid accusations of child abuse and child trafficking. The orphanage in question – the ominously named Love in Action – had "rescued" 21 children from the streets of Phnom Penh and, like many others, was unregistered. A week later, a director of another institution in the city of Siem Reap was arrested for sexually abusing two girls, one aged 11, the other 12. His orphanage remains open, but is expected to be shut down.
Although that initially seems like a good thing, when orphanages are shut down – or when children escape or grow too old to stay – they're forced out on to the streets with no family and no support. They're vulnerable and susceptible to becoming tied up in work that's nowhere near suitable for children.
Young girls often end up offering themselves to geriatric sex tourists in small, dirty bars, and others – according to Dr Lee – flock to factories to get work because they don't have the education required to apply for any other jobs. And while it may beat sex work, life as a factory worker in Cambodia still isn't that desirable; you're basically guaranteed malnourishment, exceptionally low wages and only around four days off a month.
It took the Cambodian government 20 years to establish a tribunal system to punish the Khmer Rouge members guilty of genocide in the late 70s, so it's unlikely that they're going to step in and put a stop to the orphanage exploitation any time soon. Accentuating that problem, Dr Lee tells me that a quick, "£500 or £1,000 will keep [the authorities'] mouths shut, so even though these people should be sent to prison, it's very hard to do anything because the government is so corrupt".
That said, the government has promised an investigation and, if necessary, raids into the offending orphanages. However, there's no real sign of that being carried out any time soon. The most realistic aim, according to both Tara and Dr Lee, is trying to keep children with their parents, but that's far easier said than done in a culture where those parents genuinely believe that orphanages will provide their kids better prospects than they can offer themselves.
Of course, the legitimate, licensed orphanages still doing things the right way may well be able to offer these kids the futures they deserve. So perhaps it's time to start paying a little more attention to where exactly the donations are going.
Follow Sascha on Twitter: @SaschaKouvelis
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