samraong krom commune, Kandal province – The Asia Children’s Association is located on roughly one hectare 30 km west of Phnom Penh. It’s surrounded by a barbed wire fence and sealed—neighbors say—with a gate that is almost never open.
“A car drives the children in, but the kids don’t leave to play,” one neighbor said.
“The chairman is very strict [about letting people in or out],” another said. “The car goes in, they lock the gates. The car goes out, they lock the gates.”
When a reporter Wednesday asked to be let in the compound, a woman working inside told him: “The key [to the gate] is in Phnom Penh, and you can’t come through the fence.”
The Asia Children’s Association came under scrutiny this week after the Monday arrest of four people suspected of trafficking children for black market adoption in Tuol Kok district.
Tuol Kok police made the arrests after a local woman said an organization had given her money for her two children, taken the children and then refused to give them back. Police took 12 children in the raid, which human rights officials say are currently in an unnamed safe house somewhere in the area.
But 24 hours later, the four suspects were released and the “organization” they worked for had a legitimate name in the eyes of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Sok Roeun, deputy prosecutor of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said that Yong Danika, one of the four arrested Monday, was keeping the children and giving them medical treatment at her Tuol Kok clinic under the auspices of the ACA. Though Yong Danika did not have proper documents for the children, the association produced them the next day, he said.
The ACA compound is near the Royal Phnom Penh Golf Course. Neighbors said the question of who gains access to the compound probably has something to do with money.
“I often see cars driving in the gate. People who drive motos don’t get in,” a neighbor said. “A lot of foreigners come, mostly on the weekends.”
Local officials say association takes care of children, and sometimes organizes adoptions. According to the local commune chief and the district governor, they have had the proper license to operate for three years.
“I think what they’re doing is fine and good, nothing illegal,” said Touch Pheun, the Samraong Krom commune chief.
Touch Pheun acknowledged that ACA often gives $50 or $60 in exchange for a child. He said the fact that money changes hands does not change the legality of the institution. But Kek Galabru, founder of human rights group Licadho, was not so tolerant about the idea of money being given in exchange for children.
“Whatever they say, [the children] are bought human beings. Maybe they go for adoption, and you know that adoption in Cambodia is not free,” Galabru said. “It leads the way to trafficking of human beings.”
ACA officials have been unavailable for comment.