Korea's 'IMF Orphans'

(by John Larkin )

Ji Seung-yeop is too young to know why his father went to jail, or why his mother dropped him and his sister off some week ago at an orphanage.

Technically they are not orphans: their parents are alive. But for the time being four year-old Ju-hyun and five year- old Yu-na have effectively been orphaned by South Korea's deepening recession, which is breaking up marriages at an alarming rate.

Their passage form home to orphanage is typically of a growing number of cases this year. Rising unemployment and the resulting financial stress on low-income families is creating a social phenomenon of recession orphans. It started when their father lost his office job and went to jail for bankruptcy. Their mother disappeared after packing them off to Seoul's Angels Haven Orphanage.

"Usually the father loses his job and can't pay the bills, so the wife gets fed up and run away," explains Jennifer Yoo, a social workers at Angels Haven.

Seung-yeop and his sister, believe it or not, are the lucky ones. Their father, now out of jail, has insisted he will return for them when he finds work. Others will never see their parents again.

Since March, Angels Haven has taken in 20 children, aged four to seven, brought by a parent, usually a newly jobless father who cannot afford to keep them while he looks for work. Before this it had 34 children, most whom arrived by more conventional means.

The orphanage, which opened in 1953 to shelter Korean War orphans, says it has rarely seen this sort of desperation.

Father Park Man-su, an American-born Catholic priest, says the Korean War produced huge number of orphans. "To see kids being orphaned for financial reasons means the present situation is like a war for some people," he says.

Cho Kyu-hwan, the director of Angels Haven, says some parents tell him it will be three years before they pick up their children. He knows from experience that while some may return, others won't.

He notes sadly that orphanages across Seoul are reporting similar increases in so-called "IMF orphans", named for the International Monetary Fund which delivered a record bail out to South Korea last year and is blamed by many Koreans for the downturn. Their are no figures, only anecdotal evidence from social workers who say the problem is getting worse. Even before the economic crisis it was difficult to pin down orphans number, as usually lower than those of social workers.

The recession has exacerbated the already chronic problem in South Korea of discarded children. Orphans and adoption are a sensitive subject in this country, where the importance of family blood-lines has for decades produced unwanted children.

These children have parents, but are forced out of families by strict social expectations based on traditional Confucianism. For example, a widowed or separated women with a child stands little chance of finding a husband who will accept the child of another Man. Usually, the man wants to continue his blood-line, and the child is deposited at a nursery or orphanage, or simply left outside a church or even on the street.

Sometimes the motive is financial. Korean marriages often fall apart if the man cannot provide for the family. Usually , it is the women who leaves, and this explains why most children are left at orphanages by the father. His wife has probably left him for a wealthier man.

Mounting concern has resulted in television network running community service announcements exhorting poor parents nit to dump their children on the street, but to take them to nurseries or orphanages.

Nurse Margrit Ninghetto, a Swiss who has worked in South Korea since 1985, says the majority of orphans have parents who in trying to avoid social shame have discarded them. Any thought that the decision is made easily is wrong, she says, as most parents agonise over their dilemma.

But she believes orphanages are treated like permanent day-care center by some cash-strapped parents. At her previous work place, four children languished as orphans despite having contact with their parents who had begun lives with new partners.

"The IMF is certainly having an influence on the number of orphans," says Ms Ninghetto. "Whether it's used as an excuse or not, the result is the same for the child."

(source: South China Morning Post: 20th June, 1998 )

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