The race to rescue Cambodian children from orphanages exploiting them for profit
Much was hidden from the tourists visiting Sinet Chan in her rundown Cambodian orphanage.
When they returned to their hotels, cameras full and best intentions sated, they remained oblivious to the reality of what they had just supported.
Chan, the nine-year-old who sang and danced for them, was being starved. She and the other children hunted and ate mice to survive.
The orphanage’s director beat and raped her, repeatedly, over the course of several years. She was forced to toil in his rice paddies and farms without pay. Clothes and toys donated to her would be taken to the market, sold, and used to line the director’s pockets.
“I thought it might be a good place. Maybe I could have enough food to eat, have a chance to go to school. But actually what I imagined is wrong,” Chan said. “He dressed us up looking poor so the visitors see us, they feel pity for us, and they donate more. But they don’t really know what was going on inside the orphanage.”
What the tourists saw was a pantomime. A cruel theatre with vulnerable children as its cast.
Chan was one child of an estimated 16,500 living in 406 residential care institutions in Cambodia, according to a survey released in April by the Cambodian government and the UN children’s fund (Unicef).
The vast majority of those children are not orphans. Roughly 80 per cent still have a living parent, according to Friends International, a child-focused non-government organisation operating across Southeast Asia.
Between 2005 and 2015, the number of orphanages has increased by 60 per cent in Cambodia, and half are now concentrated in the tourist destinations of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
The growth in orphanages is completely at odds with a declining poverty rate and falling numbers of genuine orphans over the same decade, according to Friends International’s Cambodian communications coordinator, James Sutherland.
“Coincidentally that was a period of real growth in tourism as well, and in ‘voluntourism’ – combining holidays with humanitarian work,” Sutherland said. “So essentially what’s happened is that unscrupulous directors of institutions have seen a business opportunity.”
Australians are among the top financial supporters of orphanages in many southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, according to Unicef. Australia props up the industry through volunteers, donations, and tourist visits, arranged by Australian travel agencies, charities, churches, universities, or high schools.
“Despite their good intentions, supporters of orphanages such as tourists and volunteers, actually end up contributing to the breaking up of families and removing children from their own family environment,” said Iman Morooka, Unicef’s Cambodian communications chief.
The momentum for change is building, in both Cambodia and Australia. In Australia, efforts are focused on pressuring the federal government to ban orphanage tourism.
Reputable NGOs, charities, and travel companies have formed an alliance, known as ReThink Orphanages, to lobby government. They are also trying to raise awareness among smaller charities, schools, and universities.
The aim is not to cut off precious donations and volunteering resources, but to redirect it to reunification and reintegration services, which link children back up with their families.
Sutherland, from Friends International, says reducing the demand from the west is critical to ending orphanages in places like Cambodia.
“Most tourists, donors and volunteers are simply unaware of the facts, of the scale of the exploitation that is happening,” Sutherland said. “Unscrupulous orphanage directors know that if you open hearts, you also open wallets.”
There is real hope that the Australian government could soon take decisive action on orphanage tourism.
A parliamentary inquiry into the establishment of a modern slavery act is currently considering banning Australian support for orphanages in places such as Cambodia.
In an effort to convince Australian politicians, Chan, now an adult, travelled to Canberra this week to give evidence before the committee. She told the inquiry of how an Australian, Tara Winkler, rescued her, after initially working at the orphanage as a volunteer. Winkler soon realised the extent of exploitation occurring within the orphanage.
“I began to realise the gross corruption that was going on, that every cent that was being sent to the orphanage, not just from me, was being embezzled by the director, and the kids were often catching mice to feed themselves,” she said.
Winkler rescued 14 children, with the help of the Cambodian government, and set up her own orphanage. She soon realised opening her own institution was a mistake. The children, once away from the orphanage, began to open up. They told Winkler their parents were still alive.
Winkler gradually realised the extent of the problem and created the Cambodian Children’s Trust, which helps to reunite children in orphanages with their families.
“I think it’s really important for people to remember, in Cambodia, the poverty rate has been in steady decline, the number of orphans as well, and yet the number of orphanages has skyrocketed,” she said.
“The heartbreaking thing is that it’s all done with such good intentions ... well, mostly. [But] they’re literally causing the trafficking of these children from their families into these institutions. When people find that out, that’s a jagged little pill to swallow.”
Chan is now trying to build a positive life for herself. She works as a script writer on a Cambodian television show, and as an ambassador for Winkler’s trust, recounting her story again and again to try to prompt change.
“I think, for people, around the world, there is no better place like home,” Chan said. “You live with your family. You have your mum and dad, your brother and sister, if you have that kind of family, why do they need to go to live in the orphanage?
“I think if they want to help Cambodian children to have a good future or better education, better to have a poor parent that can look after their own kid, and they can have support on top of that.”