Last week I wrote a post about a raid on an orphanage in Cambodia run by an Australian-based Christian charity called Love in Auction. The post was inspired by the parallels between this real-life case and the plot of my novel The Half-Child. As an aside, I indicated that I bristled at Love In Action’s stated mission “to show the people of Cambodia what caring & love really means.”
A number of people left comments on my post saying I was being too harsh. “At least the foreigners have philanthropic motives, not looking to make a profit,” said one. “I can’t understand how you can be so offended by people wanting to help the Cambodian people to overcome the trauma they have suffered. Helping them to love again is part of that process,” said another.
I write this follow up post in response to those comments and a new piece by Lindsay Murdoch in today’s paper, Stealing a generation: Cambodia’s unfolding tragedy.
I don’t deny that Cambodia is a country deeply traumatised by years of genocide, civil war, AIDS, poverty and corruption. But as Sebastien Marot from Friends-International — an organisation spearheading the campaign to end ‘voluntourism’ in orphanages — Cambodia is particularly vulnerable “because it is suffering from the victim syndrome where everyone thinks the country is still coming out of war…[and] all the children are in miserable and horrible situations, which is not the case anymore.”
While not denying the good work done by some foreign-run orphanages in Cambodia, I do not believe it follows that “non Cambodians need to show Cambodians how to love their children”.
In fact, the allegations of shocking abuse of children in orphanages in Cambodia bear a striking resemblance to what happened last century in Australia.
In twentieth century Australia, some orphanages were run by the state, most by faith-based organisations. The reasons Australian children were sent into institutional care bear a striking resemblance to the reasons most children are sent into institutional care in Cambodia today (where 72% of children have at least one parent living):
- Death of a parent/s
- Effects of war
- Lack of support for families
- Parental mental health
- Domestic Violence
- Children exposed to moral danger and having no fixed abode
- Single parent families
(Source: Care Leavers Australia Network, CLAN, Submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2012)
Over half a million Australian children experienced institutional care. Tragically, many were subject to physical, psychological and sexual abuse, neglect and humiliation, and forced to do unpaid menial labour. These former wards, together with former Child Migrants, have become known as The Forgotten Australians. The injustices they suffered in Australian orphanages were formally acknowledged by the Australian government in November 2009 with a national apology delivered by the Prime Minister. The text of the National Apology to the Forgotten Australians makes for chilling reading.
The abuses were enabled by weak government controls on what was largely a charitable-run industry in Australia.
According to the Murdoch article, “Australia has a greater involvement in Cambodia’s orphanages than any other national through Australians running them directly, volunteering or donating.”
Yes, I bristled at the hubris of Love In Action’s mission statement. But my real problem is with the unregulated nature of the orphanage industry in Cambodia. Love In Action was an unregistered facility, “unlawful and not approved by any authority”. It was raided by Cambodian police with the support of Australian-registered human rights and anti-trafficking organisation SISHA (see their joint press release) using the due process of law.
I wholeheartedly welcome application of the due process of law to the Cambodian orphanage industry. I would like to see much tighter and consistent controls on the licensing and regulation of the orphanage industry. Particularly given Cambodia’s traumatic past, I would hate to see the estimated 10,000 children in the country’s orphanages today suffer a new form of trauma as survivors of institutional care the way the Forgotten Australians have.
My struggle — and here’s where I do agree with the detractors on my previous post — is how to share SISHA’s confidence in the due process of law in light of Cambodia’s endemic corruption.
As one of my detractors noted, “talk is cheap” and on the subject of how to address corruption in Cambodia, I can only salute the courage of ordinary Cambodians I know who are working on this issue. As a non-Cambodian I have nothing to teach them and everything to learn.
Updated 16/02/14: An article appeared in the Australian media this weekend exposing problems with both Love in Action and SISHA, which have emerged since this blog post was written, see: Dodge City.