SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Just before the sun sets over the enchanting Angkor temples in northern Cambodia, a group of children gets ready for their big show. Every day, according to fliers at restaurants and hotels around town, the children perform an hour-long “charity show” for tourists visiting the ACODO orphanage.
The spectacle makes ACODO, which stands for Assisting Cambodian Orphans and Disabled Organization, one of the most visited orphanages around Siem Reap, where more than 2 million tourists arrive annually to see the ancient temples.
Onstage the children, aged between 7 and 14, dance and sing. The girls are adorned like dolls, with heavy jewelry and fake eyelashes. The boys wear traditional costumes and face masks resembling monkeys.
The show, the fliers say, is “the children's life.”
But none of them look happy. Instead, the children do what they were trained to do: generate profits for the orphanage’s owner.
“We are solely funded by kind donations from passionate foreigners ... of course, the show is very good for that. The foreigners donate after the show, or more when they get home via bank transfer,” said Long Veasna, a manager at ACODO.
What he usually doesn't tell tourists is that the vast majority of the children aren’t really orphans. “Most of them are from poor or divorced families. Orphanages here are different, the children don't have to be orphans.”
In fact, the orphanage business is booming, and for curious reasons. Despite economic growth and slow but steady alleviation of poverty and disease, more and more children are living in these surrogate homes.
Between 2005 and 2010, the number of orphanages in Cambodia increased by 75 percent, according to a study by the UN children's fund (UNICEF) and the Cambodian government. More than 270 are now registered. What's even more startling is that nationwide, only about 23 percent of the children advertised as orphans are, in fact, orphans.
More than 9,000 children living in orphanages have at least one remaining parent. By advertising them as orphans and showcasing their plight, however, good money is to be made. In Cambodia, orphanages can be lucrative, multi-million dollar businesses, according to major rights group Licadho and other Cambodian rights watchdogs.
The UNICEF study quoted foreign volunteers as being somewhat mystified regarding orphanage finances. “We got thousands of dollars ... but I don’t know where the money went,” a former residential care staff member told UNICEF.
Another said, “We had a falling out when I asked a question about where the donors' money went. This resulted in the entire orphanage being called into a two-and-a-half-hour denunciation of me.” Money flows in from tourists who feel compelled to help after seeing the squalor the children live in.
In the belief that they are doing a good deed, foreign visitors donate anywhere from $10 to several thousand dollars after touring the institutions. Some even set up charity events to collect donations upon their return home.
And while disadvantaged children certainly deserve attention and donations, aid workers doubt that the orphanages benefit them. Several child protection NGOs, including UNICEF, have launched campaigns to end orphanage tourism, and to better inform unwitting tourists of the harm they could cause by visiting them.
Children brought up in orphanages, they say, are more likely to suffer from personality disorders, growth and speech delays, and impaired ability to become part of society in their adult life. Experts also say that children are often kept in poor conditions to attract more donations, and are generally more at risk of physical and sexual abuse.
That's not the impression you get at ACODO's entrance, where a list of rules states how seriously the safety of children is being taken.
Tourists, it says, must bring their passports and register at the front desk, where they are handed a visitor's pass and put under the watch of one of ACODO's staff members “at all times,” and “under no circumstances” will visitors be left alone with children.
Reality, it turns out, doesn’t always obey these rules.
During a recent visit, no staff or any adults were to be found. GlobalPost was greeted by a group of children directly, and we were able to roam the premises freely. Asked where their supervisors were, the children shrugged their shoulders.
Toward the end of the charity show, the orphanage's cook showed up to applaud.
Contacted by phone, Veasna said that the staff was often too busy to take care of the children.
“But it's no problem, the cook is always there,” he said.
Documents indicate that the orphanage, which houses 30 children, takes in about $250,000 in donations annually. That’s a tidy sum in a country where the per capita income is less than $1,000 a year. UNICEF and other NGOs contend that the children are being exploited, and advocate for them to be reintegrated with their families.
In the United States and Europe, orphanages are a relic of the past. Cases of double orphans, children who lost both parents, are rare, and it is even rarer that no other family member, godparent or family friend will become the child's guardian.
That's also the case for Cambodia. Here, in one of the world's poorest countries — where 80 percent of the population lives without electricity — many orphanages serve as an odd form of boarding school, said Savourn Morn, the founder of Children and Development Organization (CDO).
She admits that only a minority of children under her care have lost a parent, and says almost all were from a remote village about three hours from Siem Reap city.
“I opened this to help the poor children because if they stay with their families, they have no education and health care,” Morn said. For the children, visiting home is difficult, via a two-hour ride from Siem Reap, on an unpaved dirt road littered with potholes, before a one-hour hike through the jungle. In the rainy season the path becomes flooded and impassable.
In the UNICEF study, 99 percent of parents said that they agreed to place their child in an orphanage because they would receive better education — or any education — while 47 percent cited general poverty.
Even if the families had the means to pay for their children's education, the closest elementary school is often a several-hour hike. Like most orphanage directors, Morn portrays herself as a humanitarian, who, confronted with the destitution in the village, decided to help.
Donations, she said, make up more than expenses, but are saved to establish a school and a health care center closer to the children's families.
“This is all to help the children and their families — nothing here is for myself,” she said.