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Cambodia's Orphanage Business

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Juliana Ruhfus investigated the growth of the global commercial volunteering industry and found volunteers' hopes exploited and Cambodian children needlessly placed in orphanages.

Susan Rosas is a young American social worker based in Cambodia. When I met her at the Harvard University Global Mental Health Program last year she told me about a surprising phenomenon: in spite of the fact that Cambodia had managed to overcome decades of conflict, famine and an AIDS epidemic, the number of orphanages around the country had doubled over the past decade. This, she said, was not based on the needs of the children but the growth of the global volunteering industry, which was hungry for placements.

Over 70% of the Cambodian "orphans" have at least one living parent, Susan said, but families were lured into giving up their children by the promise of Western education.

I started to research. "Voluntourism" has been described as the fastest growing sector of one of the fastest growing industries in the world. According to David Clemmons, founder of www.voluntourism.org, an estimated 11 million people traveled to volunteer in 2011 alone, proving that voluntourism has become a "multi-billion dollar expression of travelers' desires to find meaning and to make the world a better place."

Five months later I met Susan again. I had come to Cambodia with a colleague to investigate a darker side of voluntourism for Al Jazeera's People & Power current affairs programme. One of the first people we met was an Australian called Demi Giakoumis who has volunteered in Cambodian orphanages with three of the largest global commercial volunteering companies and grown increasingly disillusioned with the experience. From her we heard that commercial organizations, such as the UK based Projects Abroad, were charging volunteers up to $3,000.00 dollars a month whilst her orphanage director told her he only received $9.00 per volunteer, per week. Demi also claimed that orphanages were keeping children in deliberate poverty to attract more donations.

At Lighthouse Orphanage, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we first encountered 'orphanage tourism' in action. We met a group of young Canadian high school students who had spent a week in the orphanage painting beds and digging up the vegetable garden until they got sunstroke. On their last day we witnessed how busy Cambodian orphans can get entertaining foreign visitors: after a traditional dance performance for the Canadians, lunch was scheduled with a group from South Korea and a group from Hong Kong was rotated through later in the day.

Whilst specialized voluntourism operators based outside Cambodia may make large profits through arranging visits, it soon became clear that there is plenty of money for the local orphanages, too. One of the Canadian teachers told us that thousands of dollars had been sent to the orphanage prior to the students' arrival to buy building material and other goods. The students told us they had raised yet more money through bake-sales and fund-raisers. Frequently volunteers become so attached to the children that they continue to send money long after they have departed.

Unsurprisingly, accountability of Cambodian orphanages is a thorny issue. No qualifications are needed to set up care homes for children and during our stay we met orphanage directors who had been a bodyguard, an actress and a business woman. Worse still, out of an estimated 500 orphanages in Cambodia, only half are registered with the government.

It was when we met the investigative NGO SISHA that things began to look much more serious. SISHA had been contacted by volunteers who were concerned about the way the Children's Umbrella Centre Organization (CUCO) was run. The volunteers complained about the living and sleeping facilities for the children, including an open sewer right in the centre of the compound, the director's constant request for inflated donations and worst of all -- his offer to give up children for adoption. (Adoption is illegal in Cambodia). After sending in their own undercover investigator, SISHA alerted the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, which carried out two inspections and found that on both occasions the orphanage was failing to comply with their minimum standards.

So my colleague and I decided to go undercover. Equipped with hidden cameras we went to CUCO hoping that things had changed -- but found the conditions the same. On our arrival director Sineth Sok explained CUCO's financial difficulties and asked for a donation so we bought some food for the children. Without ever asking for any identification he put us in front of a class of children to teach. At times we were completely abandoned with more than twenty children and nobody to translate. We -- and the children -- were left to our own devices.

When we returned to follow up on the most serious allegation -- that some children had gone missing -- we found a new volunteer, a young Dutchman, at CUCO. To our surprise he told us he had been sent by Projects Abroad, the organization whose volunteers had first raised alarm bells about what was going on at the orphanage and whose complaints had triggered SISHA's and the government's inspections. Yet Projects Abroad was still sending people on placements at CUCO.

To test how serious the director Sineth was about looking after his children we asked him if we could take some of them out of the orphanage. We had brought a Cambodian social worker with us, but told Sineth she was a friend and interpreter. He lined the children up against a wall for us to pick our favorites -- and a few minutes later we were allowed to drive off with four of them. Never once had we been asked for identification, never once had our credentials been checked. It was deeply shocking, not least because Cambodia is one of the world's sex offender's hotspots and children are especially at risk.

Back in the UK we checked the most recent Projects Abroad company accounts and found them to have an annual turnover of $24 million for 2010 with $3 million profits. When we contacted them they pointed out that CUCO receives $50 per volunteer per month and that they believe it is better to have volunteers in orphanages than leaving them unmonitored. They also explained to us that the Dutch volunteer (who was in his twenties) had not been asked for a background check because this was only required for volunteers over thirty, whereas young volunteers could bring school or other references instead.

David Clemmons predicts that as voluntourism matures as an industry it will receive greater scrutiny. The hope is that as a result commercial volunteering companies will become more rigorous in implementing some basic standards such as conducting criminal background checks and sending young volunteers into orphanages where they are supervised by qualified staff.

But for many that is not enough. They question the very idea of traveling volunteers working with vulnerable children -- after all -- it is something few of us would accept in our own countries ...

"Cambodia's Orphan Business" was produced by Matt Haan and reported by Juliana Ruhfus for Al Jazeera English.