Dozens of orphanages in Cambodia, including some run by Australians, have been accused of abuse, neglect or exploiting children to attract donations.
The government in Phnom Penh is cracking down on the multimillion-dollar orphanage industry after investigators discovered shocking abuses of children and a list has been compiled of centres targeted for raids and closure.
Children in one orphanage told investigators how they were forced to crawl while they were beaten with sticks and had to eat rice from the ground as punishment for failing to recite Bible psalms, says SISHA, an anti-trafficking and exploitation organisation working with government agencies in Phnom Penh.
Another orphanage offered children for local adoption to avoid laws prohibiting foreign adoptions in the country, says SISHA's operations director Eric Meldrum, a British former detective.
"They told me to go over there and choose which one I want," Mr Meldrum told Fairfax Media.
Investigators say Australia has a greater involvement in Cambodia's orphanages than any other nation through Australians running them directly, volunteering or donating.
Seventy-two per cent of about 10,000 children in Cambodia's estimated 600 orphanages have a parent, though most are portrayed as orphans to capitalise on the goodwill of tourists and volunteers, including thousands of Australians, research shows.
Up to 300 of these centres are operating illegally and flouting a push by government and UN agencies for children to be reunited with their parents.
The managers of several respected Australian-run orphanages are alarmed by the situation and note that the number of orphanages has increased 65 per cent in the past five years, while the number of orphans has reduced dramatically as Cambodia recovered from genocide, invasion and an AIDS epidemic.
Among the largest Australian-run centres not under scrutiny are Sunrise Children's Villages, Hagar, Hope for Cambodian Children and Kampuchea House.
One of the first orphanages targeted in the crackdown was the Love-In-Action centre, an Australian-run facility in Phnom Penh where there were allegations of children being beaten and neglected.
The centre's 71-year-old Victorian founder, Ruth Golder, is under investigation after 21 children were removed from her centre during a raid on March 22, but she strongly denies any abuse took place.
The orphanage, with links to the Christian Outreach Centre in Australia, had operated illegally for years with Australian donations.
There is growing criticism across developing countries about "orphan tourism" and "volunteer tourism", where thinly disguised businesses exploit tourists and volunteers. Non-government organisation insiders call them guilt trips.
Visitors who have undergone no background checks can walk into dozens of Cambodia's orphanages and be left alone with children described by child welfare workers as Cambodia's stolen generation.
Children are also taken away from orphanages by donating strangers for outings, sometimes overnight leaving them open to sexual abuse, investigators say.
Mr Meldrum says unscrupulous orphanage operators have adopted destructive business models where the centres get more money from donors if they have more children.
He says recruiters approach poor and often rural families promising the centre can offer the children education, food, clothing and a chance for a better life.
"There are many reports of cash transactions for the child, though it is usually referred to as a donation to the family," he says.
Several international studies have found children should be living in their communities with family members, relatives or foster families except in extreme circumstances. A Save the Children study found institutional care should only be used for children as a "last resort and only then if it is of a high standard and in the best interests of the individual child".
Sebastien Marot is executive director of Friends International, a charity group conducting a campaign to warn tourists and volunteers that children are not tourist attractions.
Mr Marot says Cambodia is particularly vulnerable "because it is suffering from the victim syndrome where everyone thinks the country is still coming out of war and everyone comes here with this attitude towards Cambodia as this victimised country where all the children are in miserable and horrible situations, which is not the case any more".
But Geraldine Cox, who runs two Sunrise Children's Villages in Cambodia, says the Friends campaign has merit but it "does not take into account the many centres that are well run and rely on visits by tourists to survive". She says visitors should be discouraged from visiting centres where receipts for donations are not given, photo identifications are not requested and where a visitor cannot see annual financial reports.
Mr Marot says the people who run some orphanages "keep the kids looking poor … badly dressed in order to attract sympathy from you in order to get your money".
Some groups promote volunteer tourism as a way for travellers to "make a difference" and have "life changing and rewarding" experiences.
Volunteers pay several thousand dollars for a two-week visit while some stay many months. But Mr Marot says visitors are doing things with children at the centres that are banned in their own countries.
Cambodian agencies, including the Ministry of Social Affairs, and SISHA late last year set up a committee to investigate and close harmful unregistered orphanages, while adopting guidelines for standards of care in registered centres comparable to those in Western countries.
They have compiled a list of centres they plan to raid and close.
Jenny McAuley, chairwoman of the Hope for Cambodian Children's Foundation, which runs an orphanage in Battambang province, welcomed the government's crackdown on unregistered orphanages and the push to return children to their parents, saying it "rightly articulates that the best place for children to grow up is in their families and local communities".
Ms McAuley, who has worked in children protection for 30 years, says it is "quite arrogant for people from a developed country to go to a developing country and set up a service without reference to the government about what they are doing".
"I think government agencies are quite right to be annoyed about it … It's a form of colonisation," she says.
May, 21, who sells books to tourists on Phnom Penh's riverfront, spent four years in a centre for abused children in the city.
She says it was good she learnt to speak a little English but conditions were strict and she was allowed to only visit her parents about twice a year. "They told my parents I would be away for a year but I stayed four years until I was 19," she says.
Mother pleads for her daughters
Yem Chanthy was begging on Phnom Penh's riverfront in 2008 when an Australian woman offered to help her.
"I was very happy," she remembers. She was struggling to feed her daughters Rosa and Chita.
Chanthy can't read or write so days later she put her thumbprint on paper giving permission for her children to have "safe shelter" in a home run by the Australian evangelical church Citipointe.
She believed the children, then five and six, would be away only until she could care for them properly.
"They told me when I stopped begging and had money I would get my children back," says Chanthy, who was 23 at the time.
Over the next few months, she scraped together enough money to set up a small stall selling drinks and cigarettes by the river. Her husband, Both Chhork, got a job driving a tourist boat.
"I was earning enough for my daughters to come home," she says.
But almost five years later, despite Chanthy's repeated pleas, Rosa, now 11 and Chita, 10, are still living in Citipointe's She Rescue Home in Phnom Penh, a registered centre for exploited and at-risk children.
"I miss my children so much. We have to be together … we can be happy," Chanthy says while cradling one of her four other children in her family's one-room house in a poor Phnom Penh suburb.
Citipointe executive pastor Brian Mulheran says his church supported a raft of international studies showing children should live in their own communities and be sent to institutions such as orphanages only in extreme cases.
But he says it is up to Cambodia's Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation to decide when it was safe for the children's reintegration with their family.
"We are not an orphanage, we are classified as a support of care shelter by the [ministry] who are the legal custodians of the children," he says.
Chanthy says when she had been to the church, she was told her daughters would be returned after police approval.
"When I went to the police they wanted money," she says.
Her pleas have been backed by Sydney filmmaker James Ricketson, 64, a prodigious letter writer, who first met Chanthy 18 years ago when he was making a documentary in Phnom Penh.
She was begging near a market and he rented a room for her.
Over the years since, he has filmed various stages of her tough life, which he has put together into a documentary called Chanthy's World.
Ricketson says he had no doubt Rosa and Chita should be living with their mother.
"It's has been heartbreaking for Chanthy and Chhork," he says after a visit to the family.
"If non-government-organisations have a role in Cambodia, it should be to help families stay together rather than removing children."
Chanthy gets to see Rosa and Chita for a few hours a couple of times a month during irregular visits where a staff member of She Rescue Home is present, often in a public area.