A local civil society organization called on the government to immediately halt all pending child adoptions from Cambodia as it continues to lack sufficient child protection measures, legislatively and judicially.
The government had suspended adoptions from Cambodia in 2009 and 2011, following evidence of fraud and corruption. Cambodian officials were found to have forged documents to falsely change children’s names or ages, claiming they were orphaned or abandoned when they were not, processing their adoptions without their parents’ consent.
Despite this, three years ago, the government started to allow adoptions from Cambodia again.
The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) issued a statement on Tuesday expressing concern about the recent disclosure by the Italian government, which revealed that it was processing at least nine potential adoptions from Cambodia.
“We fear this will lead to more families being irreparably torn apart by a poorly regulated system that has failed to protect children’s best interests in the past,” the organization said.
According to LICADHO, since 2017, six families have approached the organization to seek information about 15 children who were fraudulently adopted from Cambodia in the 2000s.
These families had temporarily placed their children in shelters or orphanages after being told that their children would receive care and education, and only learned that they had been taken out of the country when they tried to visit them and found them missing. Some children were located abroad following extensive investigations, while others were never found, leaving families in a state of limbo and continued suffering.
“It is clear that Cambodia’s current systems have failed to protect children living in shelters and orphanages, and lack competence and transparency,” LICADHO also said.
As of last year, at least 5,440 Cambodian children – some of whom still have living parents – reportedly live in shelters and orphanages. Meanwhile, Cambodia reports having sent 3,696 children abroad between 1998 to 2011.
A Social Affairs Ministry spokesman, Touch Channy, declined to comment on LICADHO’s statement, but said, “We have reopened [child adoptions] but it was not a full process due to [the lack of agencies] registering,” he said. Besides Italy, countries that have adopted children from Cambodia include the United States and Australia.
“It is now difficult. They do not want to adopt our children because we have many conditions,” Channy said. He said that previously, many more people wanted to adopt Cambodian children because they could freely adopt directly from the orphanage.
Now, however, government oversight in the process means that there are more restrictions, and disabled children are included as potential adoptees, which has resulted in fewer children being adopted, according to Channy.
A 39-year-old mother from Takeo province had sent her seven-year-old daughter to a private orphanage in 2007, in Kampong Speu province, when she was struggling to make a living and decided to migrate to Thailand for better jobs. When she returned to visit her daughter, she found that she had left Cambodia.
The mother said that the director of the orphanage had told her her daughter was to be educated in Italy, and that there was no need to visit until she reached 18 years of age.
“Previously, I didn’t understand child adoptions, whether it was fraudulent or not. When I returned from Thailand, it was difficult to meet the orphanage director directly. Now, I have learned about the child abuse reported by the media, and I think it was fraud,” she said. Neither she nor any other member of her family had made an agreement to send her daughter abroad.
She said she had lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Social Affairs but with no results. When she confronted the director of the orphanage, he only repeated that her daughter had been adopted to study abroad.
In 2017, this mother approached LICADHO seeking help. After one year, she managed to track down her daughter through social media and struck up a conversation. However, her daughter does not recognize her as her legitimate mother.
Another victim is Phal, a 47-year-old woman from Kampong Thom province, who said that her three children had been adopted to Italy in 2008 – and that she has never been in contact with them.
In 2006, she had sent her two daughters and one son – aged 3, 9, and 12 – to a private orphanage in Phnom Penh. “I am poor and want my children to be educated, so I decided to send them to the center,” she said.
Phal said the orphanage director had informed her about the adoption of her children, and she agreed to let them go abroad to have an education and a brighter future.
However, she said that the director had promised they would return when they reached 18 years of age, but now she could find no news of them. Her oldest would now be 21 years old.
“I am very upset, I don’t know what to do because I am illiterate,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, operations director at LICADHO, said that child violations and trafficking continue to happen in Cambodia.
“We are worried about resuming intercountry child adoption because we do not clearly see a mechanism to protect the children’s interests,” Sam Ath said. Following the recent news from Italy, he said LICADHO had requested the relevant documents from the Ministry of Social Affairs to verify the processing of the nine children who were adopted to Italy. To date, however, the organization has yet to receive them.