KAMPALA, Uganda — In Uganda, illegal orphanages are a big business and needy children are often the lure.
Today, there are at least 300 unlicensed children’s homes throughout Uganda operating without government oversight. Their goal: foreign donations.
Websites and Facebook campaigns draw people in from around the world, asking them to sponsor children, volunteer, or sign up for travel packages.
The campaigns work. Uganda’s unregulated orphanages pull in nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year from international donors — mainly from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe.
“The people here that decide to operate a home, they get unsuspecting people to pay,” Mondo Kyateka, an assistant commissioner for the government ministry tasked to regulate children’s institutions, told VICE News. “And they use donated money to make themselves richer.”
The promise of financial windfall has pushed homes to recruit as many kids as possible — often forcing children to share beds in overcrowded dorm buildings without adequate supervision. A lack of government oversight combined with the open door to foreign volunteers means there’s no safeguard to protect children from abuse.
Often, the children aren’t even orphans.
The number of Ugandan children in institutional care has ballooned from less than 3,000 in 1992 to more than 50,000 today. Four out of five of them have at least one living parent, according to the Ugandan government.
The government started cracking down in 2016, when they passed new amendments to The Children Act, legislation designed to better regulate the ballooning and unregulated industry. The law mandates a 1:8 ratio of caregiver to children, that each child be given their own bed, and that every orphanage must have a government board of supervisors. The Ugandan government claims it has already overseen the closure of over 500 unlicensed orphanages since the law was amended.
But the ministry responsible for overseeing the enforcement of these new regulations is plagued by its own problems, including corruption.
VICE News accompanied one probation officer in Uganda’s Kamuli District as he delivered a letter stating that an unregulated orphanage called Save the Aids Generation had one week to close.
The orphanage only had 5 adults caring for 120 children. None of them were trained to work with kids, and children had complained that there were frequent problems with the toilet.
But when the officer, Joshua Mboizi, presented a school administrator with a letter giving them one week to close down, the owner accused him of using his power as a probation officer to extort them for money.
“He takes bribes and [participates] in so many illegal activities,” said Frank Nsiina, an operator of Save the Aids Generation.
VICE News spoke to people at two other orphanages that accused Mboizi of taking money in exchange for allowing them to stay open without a license.
Mboizi denies the allegations, but Kyateka admits that foreign money isn’t the only obstacle to stopping the proliferation of unregistered orphanages in Uganda.
“Corruption is a big problem. It is a big problem — not only at the local government level but also at other levels, we witness pockets of corruption,” he said.
Kyateka vowed to address the allegations against Mboizi: “I promise you it’s going to be total. We are going full up until we get to the bottom of that.”
More than a month on, the orphanage Mboizi attempted to close is still operating, and the investigation hasn’t concluded.
Cover image: Children stand outside Save the AIDS Generation, an orphanage that houses around 120 children, many of whom have living relatives.(Zach Caldwell/VICE News)
This segment originally aired August 1, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.