Fake orphanages in Cambodia target tourists for cash in empathy scam

Orphanages are big businesses in Cambodia. But many do not house actual orphans. Photo: ITV News

Empathy is a powerful human emotion, compounded in the presence of a vulnerable child, but that feeling is being capitalised upon among many Western tourists and volunteers in parts of Cambodia.

In the capital Phnom Penh and the tourism hotspot of Siem Reap the business of “orphanages” can be a successful one. Siem Reap tour guide Sonny Chhoun told me:

Compared to 10 years ago there weren’t many orphanages in the town. Now, in any direction you go you’ll find one. Tuk tuk drivers, and even tour operators, take people to them.

This country was shattered by war and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime more than 30 years ago, which left hundreds of thousands of children orphaned, but in recent years the number of actual orphans has fallen, but according to UNICEF, the number of orphanages has gone up, by more than 75%. Innocence can be a saleable commodity.

“Local people call them zoos,” Sonny says. He’s mystified by the appeal, “If you don’t do something like this at home, why would you do it in Cambodia?”

But, he understands why their numbers are increasing, and they operate as a business:

It’s very simple, it attracts the foreign donor

They dance, they sing and they perform for tourists and the donation box comes out.

We watched Australian tourists being taken to a rural part of Siem Reap, 45 minutes outside the town, to be shown a plot of land where one man said he wanted to build a school and needed large donations.

He may plan to do it, but he may not. There is no proof, but that same man was on busy “Pub Street” every day we were there, touting for business, and he asked us to visit his orphanage, see the school site, and donate.

When I walked away from one conversation, he then approached our local tour guide saying there’d be money in it for him if he could convince us to hand over cash.

Girls play inside the Charity Foundation for the Children (CFC) daycentre that run legitimate alternatives to the unregistered orphanages. Credit: ITV News

Many - and most - of the children living in these so-called ‘orphanages’ aren’t orphans either, but children from poor families given over to such centres by their families.

We met Sam Soy in Phnom Penh who lived in an ‘orphanage’ as a teenager. His parents were both alive. 60 children lived there but only one was a real orphan. He said:

When visitors came to the orphanage the director would ask [him] to show a sad face and tell foreigners that [they] had no food to eat, no money for clothes.

He now works for M’lup Russey, a non-governmental organisation in Phnom Penh, helping introduce de-institutionalisation, and get children out of such centres and back with their families.

Children in one of the new registered daycentres in Phnom Penh run by Charity Foundation for Children that provide legitimate childcare. Credit: ITV News

Sarah Chin works with him:

People going into the orphanages don’t realise that what they’re actually seeing are children who have both parents alive and could actually still be at home being looked after by their families.

There are active recruiters going out to communities to try and find poor children who can be institutionalised. In some cases they will even give money to the families to take the children to the orphanages. These are people who just need a bit of support to keep their families with them.

The one thing that will help this to change is for us in the West to realise that the system [of institutionalisation] didn’t work in our own country, so why is second best good enough for other children when its not good enough for our own.

And it’s not just the morality of the issue that’s troubling, there’s the long term effect on the children.

The children have the feeling of abandonment for being sent to the orphanage in the first place then you have a constant stream of constant care tiers, then you have the volunteers and tourists that are coming in. They’re there two days and then they leave, and the cycle of abandonment continues.

An unregistered orphanage in Phnom Penh. Credit: ITV News

Since 2006, the government has called for a minimum standard of care within institutions and make sure they’re all on a register, but they’re policies that have yet to really halt the industry.

When I challenged Oung Sophannara, the Director of Child Welfare at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation about the lack of regulation he said, “It’s not easy.”

So I pursued him: “Stopping fake orphanages existing is your job, isn’t it?”

Yes, yes. This is our duty. We have to do [a better job] in the future. We must do it. The first [problem] is a lack of resources, the second [is the fact] there are lots of children.

To be able to stop or close down a centre we have to study all the children because we don’t really know who does or doesn’t have parents, so our first step is to study that first.

There are, too, alternative forms of care for children beginning to surface. Daycare centres that feed and educate children, when they’re not at school, are being set up.

They operate within a community, or slum, and are not residential facilities but mean children can attend and continue to live with their families.

Many institutions in Cambodia are legitimate but knowing which and where to support is difficult. It needs checking, and double-checking.

Tourism here is growing rapidly though, so while a captive audience with cash exists, it will perpetuate the trade.