The centres, all run by NGOs, were shut down over the past five years
PHNOM PENH – Cambodia has shut down 11 orphanages, all run by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), over the past five years for reasons including sexual abuse, violence and forced child labour, according to its Ministry for Social Affairs.
Some other orphanages had also closed down of their own accord due to lack of funds or an inability to meet expected standards, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
“We found there were centres that had no money, but were still open to earn funding,” said Mr Um Sophan Nara, director of the ministry’s Child Welfare Department.
Facilities for deprived and vulnerable children in Cambodia, among South-east Asia’s poorest countries, are no strangers to scandals running the gamut from fraudulent fund-raising to child trafficking and poor living conditions.
In 2013, the escape of 12 children from Love in Action (LIA) led the authorities to raid the Phnom Penh orphanage and rescue 21 children. The LIA, which was accused of physical abuse, unexplained disappearance of children and overcrowding, was believed to be funded by Christian groups in Australia.
In the same month, the president of the Angkor Orphan & Education Organisation in Siem Reap was charged with sexually preying on two girls, aged 11 and 12, from his orphanage. Anti-human trafficking police said Mon Savuth, who was then 36, would take the girls to bed with him every night, strip them and perform indecent acts with them.
The number of orphanages – excluding illegal operators – jumped from 155 in 2005 to 225 last year, driven by the empathy of foreigners, according to aid workers. Among the 225 centres, only 23 were run by the state, said Minister for Social Affairs Vong Soth.
Last year, Phnom Penh’s Social Affairs Department pulled the shutters on two orphanages after some children there complained that they did not have enough to eat. The two centres were later found to be illegal with no proper papers.
To attract foreign donations, rogue orphanages would rope in children to pose as orphans, the New York Times reported. Some centres solicit funding online, while a number of others invite foreigners to visit and volunteer at the centres in what is known as “orphanage tourism”.
Today, there are 208 orphanages, including 22 state-run facilities, providing shelter and food to more than 10,000 children across the country.
Mr Vong Soth had vowed to reduce the number of children in orphanages by 30 per cent within two years, after an inspection last year found 70 per cent of 12,000 children living in orphanages in fact had families. “The centres should receive only real orphans who have no other option, not children who are living with families and parents,” he said at an event in February to discourage parents from leaving their children with orphanages.
Cambodia had an acute need for orphanages more than 30 years ago after the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which left 1.7 million people dead and many children without parents. Yet after the genocide ended and the number of orphans declined, the global spotlight on the issue seemed to intensify.
But the government’s closure of the 11 institutions “sends a signal” that it is beefing up the system, rights activists said.
The closures show the government is “doing its job, even if it’s only a small number”, Ms Vuthy Sokhna from Friends International told the Phnom Penh Post.