Children as Commodities: Combating Cambodia’s Orphanage Racket

October 2019

First published: Wednesday, March 30, 2016

By Robert Carmichael

When 12-year-old Sady was left at an orphanage a decade ago in the slow-paced riverside city of Battambang in western Cambodia, it was not because her parents had died; it was because they were poor.

At that time around half of Cambodia’s population lived below the poverty line. Although the proportion has more than halved since, 3 million people still live in poverty.

Unable to take care of their nine children, Sady’s parents believed putting her and her younger brother in an orphanage would allow them to attend school and attain a better life. It is a common misconception in Cambodia.

“I remember having this conversation sitting outside with my dad, and him saying: ‘Try to study. I don’t have anything to give you except bringing you here – that is my only gift’,” Sady says, her eyes filling with tears.

The orphanage became her home for two years.

Bruce Grant, UNICEF Cambodia’s Chief of Child Protection, says Sady’s case is the norm: three out of four Cambodian “orphans” have at least one living parent or close family member. Globally the ratio is similar.

“Poverty and the search for better education opportunities are critical drivers,” he says.

UNICEF is a lead development partner with the Ministry of Social Affairs, the government agency responsible for alternative care. UNICEF’s role is twofold, Grant explains: supporting the ministry as it finalises the regulatory framework; and assisting civil society groups that provide the services needed to help children return to their communities.

“Most of the children in these orphanages shouldn’t be there in the first place,” he says.

The reason so many are there is that many orphanages are a racket – businesses run by unscrupulous individuals who promise impoverished, uninformed parents that their children will be housed, fed and schooled.

In return the owners target tourists to visit orphanages, deliberately keeping the children in conditions of abject poverty and wheeling them out – as Sady remembers well – to solicit cash and gifts, which are promptly pocketed.

Although most visitors mean well, their support perpetuates an often corrupt and abusive environment, damaging the very children they are trying to help.

Numbers Game

No one knows how many orphanages Cambodia has, though an ongoing survey by the government and UNICEF has found far more than were initially thought to exist.

In 2014, the Ministry of Social Affairs knew of 139 “residential care” institutions in five of Cambodia’s 25 provinces. A survey in 2015 found 267 – nearly twice as many – in those five provinces with 11,788 children, around half of them girls. That was nearly two-thirds more than the 7,545 children it had recorded the previous year.

More than 30 of the orphanages had not even registered with the government, which meant they operated out of sight. Another 6,663 children were living at a further 134 institutions such as group homes and boarding schools. The nationwide situation will be far better known when the full survey finishes later in 2015.

The risk of abuse in orphanages is well known. Less so is that decades of evidence have proven that children raised in such institutions – even good institutions – suffer because their brains do not develop properly. That makes it harder for them to fit in to society when adults; it also means they are much more likely to fall into sex work or criminal activity, and far more likely to commit suicide.

But, for the unscrupulous, orphanages are good business. Unsurprisingly their number has leaped: between 2005 and 2011, for instance, the number of known orphanages rose two-thirds; that increase neatly mirrored the jump in tourist numbers over the same period. Those involved in combating the orphanage racket say the two are linked.

Among them is 29-year-old Tara Winkler, an energetic Australian who, when she first came to Cambodia in 2005 as an unaware tourist, made sure to visit orphanages.

She was horrified at what she saw. At an orphanage in Battambang – the same one where Sady ended up the following year – the dozen or so “orphans” of different ages and both genders slept on the floor in a single room, and regularly had to catch their own food – insects, mice, fish – in nearby ponds and rice fields.

Determined to help, Winkler began fundraising in Australia. A year later, after raising tens of thousands of dollars for the orphanage, Winkler realized that the conditions she had seen were manufactured.

“The model for many orphanages in Cambodia is to keep kids poor to evoke sympathy, and they live there at a high risk of abuse,” says Winkler, who returned to Battambang in 2007 and founded the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), a non-profit that works to reintegrate orphanage children back into the community.

CCT is part of a network called 3PC, which stands for the Partnership for the Protection of Children. 3PC, which UNICEF supports, brings together nine non-profits and more than 40 community-based organizations to provide child-protection services to around 20,000 of the most vulnerable children each year.

The network is central to the government’s recently announced target that, by 2018, aims to return 30 per cent of the 11,788 children known to be living in institutions in five provinces back home to their families and communities.

Central to this approach is combating family poverty, given that this is the key driver behind the problem. That means working with at-risk families to help them keep their children, and reintegrating those who are already in orphanages.

“The solution with impoverished families is not to remove the child from the family, but to support the family to take care of them,” says Winkler, pointing out that it costs one-tenth the money to keep children in their community than to place them in care.

Bleak Past, Better Future?

These days Winkler spends much of her time raising awareness about the dangers of orphanage tourism “so people don’t make the same mistakes I made”, and encouraging people who want to help to do so constructively

Learning about the issues before getting on the plane is a great start, she says, highlighting the international ChildSafe campaign ( Those who want to give money should put it towards groups that support families, and not hand it to orphanages or child beggars. And people should stay away from orphanages.

“Even though the vast majority of orphanage tourists wouldn’t dream of hurting a child, these kids are removed from their families and craving love and attention,” Winkler says. “And when these lovely, kind-hearted people come along and shower them with love and attention, and then leave, it evokes those feelings of abandonment again.”

Also, she adds, that access is available to sex tourists and paedophiles.

UNICEF’s Grant says moves are underway to better regulate the system, among them the aim to reduce numbers by 30 percent. Also, children younger than three will not be allowed in residential care. And by mid-2016 every institution involved in housing children must register with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The broader goal is that residential care is used as the last resort, and even then only for as short a time as possible and in institutions that adhere to the highest standards. In any event, foster care or living with their own families is far better for children than being in even the best institutions.

Sady says that the day CCT removed her from the orphanage was “like starting a new life”. The non-profit then tracked down her parents, relocated them from their village to Battambang, and helped them to earn a steady living. CCT also ensured that Sady’s siblings went to school. In 2013, before her father died, Sady moved back home.

These days Sady, now 23, is in her second year studying nursing, a stellar student who is confident her skills will help others.

“Now I am in university, my siblings are in school, my mum has work,” she says, “and we have a happy family life.”

Sady’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

Reposted from Unicef Cambodia