Medan, Indonesia – Every night, the staff at the Mutiara Mulia orphanage go through the same ritual.
They set up a tripod with a mobile phone attached and drag over a speaker to play soothing, ambient music. Then they start livestreaming on TikTok as the children sleep soundly behind them, soliciting donations for the orphanage and thanking viewers who send digital gifts that can be exchanged for cash through the app.
“We were inspired to start livestreaming because we saw other orphanages in Indonesia doing the same thing,” Mika Ndruru, whose husband Maredi Laia set up the orphanage in 2019, told Al Jazeera.
On a good night, the orphanage’s livestreams can attract up to 2,000 viewers and earn about $165 through gifts and direct donations to the orphanage’s bank account, which is prominently displayed on a banner in the background.
The livestreams have been so lucrative the orphanage has been able to pay for four of its 30 students, aged between two and 17 years, to attend private schools.
Indonesia is TikTok’s second-largest market after the United States, with some 106 million users in 2022.
Since launching in the Southeast Asian country in 2017, the video-sharing app has emerged as a platform for eliciting donations, particularly for vulnerable groups such as orphans, disabled people and the elderly.
In February, the trend went viral following a series of videos of elderly women sitting for hours in pools of water and mud while begging viewers to send donations. A resulting public outcry saw the original creator being briefly questioned by the police and raised questions about the ethics of online begging.
Yet at Mutiara Mulia in Medan, Ndruru, 26, is adamant that TikTok has been a lifeline when other sources of funds have dried up. As a private orphanage, Mutiara Mulia does not receive any government subsidies and relies entirely on donations from the public.
“Some months, we don’t get any donations aside from those from TikTok,” Ndruru said.
Yet livestreaming images of the children and soliciting donations come with their own set of complex ethical issues.
When Ndruru is tired of leading the livestreams, which usually run every night from 10pm to 1am, 18-year-old Sahabat Laia takes over.
Laia came to the orphanage in 2021 from Nias, an island off the western coast of Sumatra, and now helps Ndruru with the day-to-day running of operations. Laia speaks softly during the livestreams, welcoming new viewers and answering questions sent in the chat, although he admits viewers are not always supportive of the orphanage’s aspirations.
“Some people accuse us of exploiting the children for money,” he told Al Jazeera. “And some people ask us why the government isn’t taking responsibility for the children.”
Many of the children at Mutiara Mulia are also from Nias.
Niswan Harefa, a lawyer in Medan who is originally from the island, said the orphanage and its use of TikTok are symptomatic of the social problems on the island and the government’s inability to deal with them.
“Nias’s economy is low as are salaries on the island. Many parents are unable to pay for their children’s education or give them adequate food,” Harefa told Al Jazeera.
“It is also not that there is no government help available,” he said. “But parents often don’t know how to access government services. As a result, they send their children to live in private orphanages on the mainland where they know they will be fed and sent to school.”
Private orphanages are commonplace in Indonesia, which has one of the highest rates of children in residential care in the world, although many, including Mutiara Mulia, are not registered with the government, making data regarding the number of orphans in Indonesia difficult to assess.
According to a 2007 report by Save the Children, some half a million Indonesian children live in orphanages across some 8,000 institutions – 99 percent of which are private and many of which are faith-based like the Christian Mutiara Mulia.
Malahayati, a human rights lawyer at the Indonesian Child Protection Institution (LPAI) in Langkat in North Sumatra, said private orphanages fill the gap left by overburdened government institutions despite the Indonesian constitution guaranteeing all children state protection if they are orphans or live in poverty.
“Orphanages soliciting donations are a common phenomenon in Indonesia and I’ve often encountered them when I’ve been doing fieldwork,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Sometimes, children beg for money by carrying around a donation box with the name of the orphanage on it. Open donations, where the public volunteer funds, are legal in Indonesia because the children are not working for the money, but it is illegal in Indonesia for children to work full time and they have a right to education.”
Mutiara Mulia’s TikTok account has been suspended three times, twice permanently over livestreams in which children were seen coming out of the bathroom after bathing wearing only a towel or naked. Mutiara Mulia set up a new account after each permanent suspension.
The orphanage denies that it is exploiting the children with the livestreams and insists that all the money received is used to provide for their needs.
“Some people even accuse us on the livestreams of using fake children that we have recruited from the local neighbourhood, but we need these livestreams to pay for their school and other needs,” Ndruru said.
A TikTok spokesperson told Al Jazeera that livestreams by orphanages are allowed as long as they do not violate the community guidelines, which prohibit the exploitation of minors and abuse.
The spokesperson said the platform’s safety and civility policies do not allow the solicitation of donations or gifts in a demeaning context, such as when someone is begging on their knees, but that TikTok does not consider Mutiara Mulia’s account to violate these guidelines.
Ndruru said Mutiara Mulia is planning to register with the government’s social affairs department to be eligible for subsidies and some financial help, but the process is bureaucratic and confusing, which is why it is taking them so long to file all the necessary paperwork.
Until then, the orphanage has no plans to abandon the nightly livestreaming.
“Lots of people support us and, without any regular donations to rely on, what else are we supposed to do?” Ndruru said.