PHNOM PENH, Apr 21 – A staggering 35,000 Cambodian children and young people continue to be housed in a range of residential care facilities, with many of them flying under the government’s radar, according to a new report released by the Ministry of Social Affairs yesterday.
The report marks a crucial step in the government’s efforts to put a stop to the proliferation of orphanages, which have been dogged by claims of child abuse and profiting by marketing impoverished children as tourist attractions.
However, even by the report’s own reckoning, those efforts have a long way to go. Almost 40 percent of residential care institutions have never been inspected by the Ministry of Social Affairs, 12 percent are unregistered and more than 20 percent did not have a memorandum of understanding with the government, the study found.
“This is concerning, because children living in unregulated and uninspected institutions are more at risk of neglect, as well as physical and sexual abuse and trafficking,” said Debora Comini of UNICEF, which partnered with the government, USAID and 3PC to conduct the study.
Nonetheless, the mapping provides a more accurate snapshot of the true scale of the institutionalisation of Cambodian children.
There were 16,579 children under the age of 18 living in 406 orphanages alone – or one out of every 350 Cambodian children. Almost 80 percent of adolescents in orphanages have a living mother or father.
Previous government estimates were much lower – just 11,171 children living in 254 orphanages.
The new figure excludes the 233 boarding schools, emergency houses, pagodas and small-scale group homes where an additional 9,608 children are housed, as well as the 9,187 young people over 18 who live in residential care. Those numbers bring the total to 35,374 children and youth in 639 centres.
Yet the latest figures fell short of another recent estimate, a Columbia University statistical study, which used a broader definition of “residential care” to estimate there were 49,000 children living in institutions, or one in every 100 children.
Minister of Social Affairs Vong Soth yesterday urged poverty-stricken parents not to sell or place their children into orphanages, saying the best place for a child to thrive was in the care of their family, and that families could receive NGO and government support.
“[Sometimes] their parents’ living conditions are poor, so parents sent them to centres hoping their children could have a better education rather than stay with them,” he said.
The study found that, of children in care, 925 had a disability, 576 had HIV/AIDS, 270 had received “detoxification services” for addictive substances, and 252 were victims of child trafficking.
Some former orphanage founders welcomed the government’s steps to reintegrate children back into their families, though UNICEF warned that more social workers were needed for that mammoth task.
Chin Soka, director of Sok’s Cambodian Children’s Orphanage, said he started his facility in 2006 but he is now phasing it out. The youngest child in his care is 10.
“I think it is a good idea to close them,” he said. “Orphanages around Cambodia have many problems.” Though his website still appears to advertise to so-called “voluntourists”, he said he has now changed his tune.
“Before we had them, but not now. Now we change a lot – we don’t want to make children an attraction.”