Orphanages: An afterword

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):

  • Poverty
  • Death of a parent/s
  • Effects of war
  • Lack of support for families
  • Parental mental health
  • Alcoholism
  • 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.


About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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16 Responses to Orphanages: An afterword

  1. Catherine says:

    Thank you for your insight Angela. How I hate the smugness of those who believe they are enlightened, who feel they can “fix” things by indoctrinating others with their beliefs and good works. Whilst I don’t doubt the intentions of many are honourable, we do have so much to learn, including what communities require – not what we think they need!


  2. Angela – I salute you for addressing this painful topic. You are absolutely right on several important scores. One is that any facility, any organisation, any group that works with orphaned or neglected/abandoned/relinquished children needs careful, rigourous and regular oversight. There are shameful records in many countries (including the U.S.) of facilities that have exposed children to unimaginable trauma at a time when they are most vulnerable. This must stop and part of that is a a close look at agencies. And speaking as an adoptive parent, I can also say that when the system is focused on ensuring the best for the child, it can work well. But not if it’s not a transparent system where time, expense and talent are devoted to making sure it works.
    Another point on which you’re spot on is that the Cambodian people (and indeed, the people of any culture) are in the best position to know what they need, what their strengths are and what they want. Yes of course international assistance can be valuable. But to assume that someone outside the country knows better than its own people is arrogant. There are ways (and I admit, they require delicate tact at times) to offer assistance and to take an active role in another country’s social services infrastructure. But it starts with assuming that the people of that country are the ones who know what they need.


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comment, Margot. Sometimes the sovereignty argument — that people know what they need — can be hard to sustain, especially in the face of endemic corruption such as in Cambodia. But just as Australians would never accept Cambodians running unlicensed orphanages here, the Cambodians should not be expected to tolerate such behaviour from Australians in their sovereign country. Likewise, we wouldn’t accept unscreened volunteers associating with vulnerable children. As Mr Marot put it in the article cited above, “Imagine if a busload of Chinese turned up at a school in Australia, played with the children, spoke to them in Chinese, pushed them to eat rice and fish and took photographs with them and splashed them all over Facebook…The parents would go berserk.”


      • Khim says:

        What’s wrong with introducing the kids to the Chinese language, rice and fish ? I’m all for being multi-lingual and eating healthily.


  3. humphrey hollins says:

    All these organisations in Cambodia are self serving to some degree.Cambodia is a lovely place to live and Phnom Penh has excellent restaurants, hotels and villas with swimming pools.The root cause of Cambodias problem is dire poverty with a highly corrupt ruling class denying Cambodians basic services.You wont hear SISHA or anyone else criticising the government or bureaucracy.
    Cambodia has been free of war for a long time and still the government begs for money from all of us whilst individuals bank billions of stolen money in foreign bank accounts.
    Murdoch mentions Australian run orphanages who are such a soft target, khmer run orphanages and far worse operations abusing kids should be the real targets.There is a government run agency that detains the poor, funded by the UN, abuses there are horrific.Similarly children are working on new sugar plantations on land stolen from their parents who were subsistence farmers, the owners are Khmer politicians.Are SISHA or Lindsay Murdoch breaking down the doors there?
    KTVs are huge Khmer pleasure palaces with parking lots full of Lexuses and Range Rovers and staffed by hundreds of unfortunate young women, any assaults on these places by Murdoch and SISHA?
    The hypocrisy and double standards are breathtaking.


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comments, Humphrey. To some extent, it makes sense that an Australian registered NGO like SISHA and an Australian journalist like Lindsay Murdoch would hone in on abuses for which Australians are responsible — a way to get our own house in order before criticising others.

      But as I said in my post, I hope we will see the rule of law applied uniformly to orphanages across the board in Cambodia, whether run by foreigners or locals. I hope SISHA’s targeting of Australia-run orphanages is tactical, paving the way for a crackdown on abuses wherever they occur. But I guess that remains to be seen.

      In the meantime, I will ask my Cambodian friends if they know of any local journalists working to investigate and expose abuses in locally run orphanages.


    • Khim says:

      You aren’t supposed to bite the hand that feeds you, and to forget to scratch the back of somone who scratches yours, so we have been told while growing up in this part of Asia. Unless we pluck up enough courage to bite back and can get rid of the itch on our backs, nothing much will change


      • angelasavage says:

        Thanks for that observation, Khim. Well said.

        And while I’m all for multilingualism and healthy eating, too, the issue here is informed consent — as I’m sure you well know. 😉


  4. Pingback: Cambodian orphanage raid hits close to home | Angela Savage

  5. humphrey hollins says:

    Lots of rubbish here, unregulated orphanages?
    What about unregulated Police and government departments?
    As for allegations that chidren were beaten for not reading the bible- probably a lie.But Cambodians beat their chidren for anything, if you dont know these people then you have no idea what goes on here.It really is a jungle out there and I think that any kid in an Australian run orphanage is lucky compared to a kid in a Khmer institution of any sort.Google ministry of social affairs rape camp and see how Khmers treat their own,
    What we have here is NGOs pulling at heart strings competing with each other for donors, pure and simple.Dont believe the propaganda from people who you would assume have the peoples interests at heart.


  6. kathy d. says:

    So many good points here, especially by Angela and Margot.
    I remember the horrors of what happened to Indigenous children in Australia, being kidnapped from their mothers and abused and forced to do domestic labor for free. And this was also well-described in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary.
    But I look at my own country, the U.S., where Native children were stolen from their families and put in “boarding schools,” where they were beaten for speaking their own languages, observing their own cultural traditions and wanting to return to their families.
    I don’t know that much about orphanages per se, but I do know that very unscrupulous people hiding behind the Bible went to Haiti after the 2010 hurricane, many up to no good regarding the children, holding phony brochures showing fancy mansions and swimming pools.
    And I do know that in many countries, there are unscrupulous “baby dealers,” and child sellers who seek to make lots of money from selling children.
    And there are good people in every country who want to protect children from all types of abuse.
    And, ultimately, sovereignty has to be respected, and the rights of those who live in each country.


  7. kathy d. says:

    Just having read Lindsay Murdoch’s piece, I am so outraged and upset at the exploitation of these children in Cambodia, where they are seen as financial assets and abused, including sexually. It’s horrific. It shouldn’t be allowed there or anywhere.
    It’s good the government is cracking down, and it’s good to read of humanitarians like Jenny McAuley who put children’s interests first.


  8. leon wuching says:

    Your article is well intentioned and at the same time woefully ignorant of the reality. Murdoch’s story about the raid was bs as later was shown by others but never addressed by Murdoch in a follow up article. The boss of sisha resigned over it all. The LIA charity are well intentioned but short of funds and unregistered because like the hundreds of other charities there, unable to pay the exorbitant requirements of the corrupt officials at the foreign ministry. If you are going to comment on these things look a bit deeper first. Sometimes it does take people from outside to show what love and caring looks like to people who have lost it. North korea comes to mind.



    • angelasavage says:

      Leon, I’m not sure where North Korea fits in. If you’ve ever seen the extraordinary British documentary A State of Mind, you’d appreciate that while North Korean people live in unfathomably awful political regime, they love their children as much as we do. The scene in the film where a mother describes how they celebrated her daughter’s birthday during a period of famine will stay with me forever.


  9. Thom T says:

    Dear Ms Angela,
    By your report on Mrs Golder and Love in Action you have been truly misinformed. You do not know the story that us educated Cambodians know. Corruption is rife within the organization that raided this facility and also made false reports.
    This is a sad case of disrepute on a woman, us Cambodians love and respect.
    You do need to do review it more deeply. The truth will come out. Anyone who reads this story against Mrs Golder and believes it is sadly misinformed and they do not know our country or what is truly happening. Before anyone makes assumptions they need to understand the full picture.
    The western world have not idea of what truly has happened.
    There are good foreigners such as Mrs Golder and the organization she represents. She does not live a rich lifestyle as her heart and the money her organization raise by hard work all goes to us the Cambodian people.
    Once again get the story correct before making comments.


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