Abandoned By NGO's, Congo Orphanages Exploit Kids For Cash

When the UN and NGO's stop funding, orphanages are forced to close or reduce their activities. Private citizens seize the opportunity to create sham orphanages where profit is the priority.

Morning in Mugunga (Julien Harneis)
Morning in Mugunga (Julien Harneis)

GOMA - When the orphanage opened in 2008, the owner had simply transformed his house into a group home, explains the chief of Goma's Mabanga district, one of the most populated areas in this eastern Congolese city. Now 48 children sleep in the tiny dormitory, where bunk beds line all four walls.

The orphanage's unscrupulous owner, a former public school teacher, explains: "A year ago, there were 85 children, but those who couldn't get used to the conditions left. They are replaced by others: there are many."

Goma has a lot of these so-called orphanages. The people running them go around to poor families to collect children, who are then used as bait to attract generous benefactors. They make money by levying most of the donated goods and food, which they resell for money. They also keep part of the funding earmarked for schooling and medical expenses. The children in their care are neglected, and many of them run away. "They end up joining the ranks of homeless children, whose situation is very precarious," a human rights activist explains.

When it's about making money, anything goes here. Politicians, who want to show how charitable they are, are perfect targets for the owners of these homes. "During national legislative elections, candidates make donations to our group home. We need their donations to survive," says Alphonsine Masika, owner of the Upendo ("love") home, where 32 children are looked after. She runs the home by herself in Goma's poorest neighborhood, Birere.

Many orphanages and group homes created thanks to the United Nations and NGOs have had to close, due to a lack of funding. The COVEDEC (Women and Children Visionary Council for Development and Culture) center, financed by the International Red Cross, was created in 2008. "Today, the center can't operate at full capacity anymore. We didn't have enough money, so we had to place a number of children in foster families," explains reverend Patrick Senzoga, who runs the center with the help of the Congo Church of Christ.

Not enough "real" orphanages

Social Services are aware of the problems plaguing local orphanages. Even the huge Don Bosco Center, where more than 300 children live, is facing difficulties. "What can we do? More and more children need to be placed in homes, but there are not enough real orphanages. This creates a situation where unscrupulous people fill the void, to the detriment of children," explains the head of Social Services.

Impoverished parents, who think they are helping their children by placing them in care homes, are appalled when they find out their children are now living on the streets: "When they came to take my son, they promised me they would take good care of him. Eight months later, I found him on the street," Alphonsine Nabintu recalls, with tears in her eyes. She though the group home would help lighten her burden: a mother of six, whose husband died five years ago.

Alphonse Bajoje, 11, ran away from his orphanage with three other children. They joined a group of homeless kids. "The school kept kicking me out because the home wasn't paying my tuition fees. There was hardly anything to eat. Here, in the center of the city there are lots of busy markets, and we are able to survive by cleaning motorcycle-taxis and doing errands."

Human rights activists are up in arms, including Djenton Maungu of Goma's civil society: "There is a law against child exploitation for gain. The State needs to do something about this situation. These (corrupt) orphanages are gambling with our children's future."

Read the original article in French in Syfia-Grands-Lacs.

Photo - Julien Harneis

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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