SEATTLE — Over half of the world’s children live in the Asian-Pacific region; hoards of street children live in this region. The use of the term street children is not a sociological classification for children “on” or “of” the street, but rather a linguistic type of communicative engagement that accounts for the variety of problems facing vulnerable children in urban cities. Characteristics of street children can include homelessness, separation from family, and poverty. As a result of economic desperation, these children are forced to work, which keeps them from going to school. On the street, they become more prone to exploitation and the risk of harm rises.
Due to the vulnerability of being on the street, the experiences of these children overlap with the experiences of other child victims, such as migrants, working children and those who are trafficked. In addition, these children are living in areas where there is endemic poverty, domestic, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In general, street children do not attend school, they only work. Because they may not be registered or have an official identity, street children experience an inability to receive any public education or health care. They have little opportunity for recreation or play and are subject to harassment by police.
The causes of a child transiting to street work are circumstantial. Poverty is often responsible for creating street children. In some instances, a child may be sent out by his or her family to work as a necessity for family survival. Families of rural areas may also send their children to the city to work. Sometimes an entire family will migrate to urban areas with their children and choose to send them to work instead of school.
Street children are most evident in large cities. They work in occupations that bring them into contact with both the local residents and foreign tourists. The range of work includes begging, collecting rubbish for recycling, scavenging rubbish dumps, shoe shining, flower sales, magazine and newspaper sales, prostitution, or even petty theft or extortion. In some of these occupations, children work alone, although they are frequently under the control of adults, older street children, or gangs.
Many working children may be under coercion to deliver a certain amount of money each day. The adults who have obtained trafficked children are careful not to be visibly seen in public. The children who are seen on the street, especially selling or begging during evening hours, are often imagined to be homeless, desolate and separated from parents. The lives of street children are very complicated. Some have run away from abusive homes, some are the victims of being trafficked and others may have simply migrated to an urban area with their families. Some may live in shelters, while others live on the streets, sleeping in closed business entryways or places that provide shelter for the night. Most are working under exploitative and dangerous conditions.
Trafficking street children to work in factories or sweatshops is common due to their tiny hands. Some children serve as drug mules or brothel workers, while some children are trafficked or coerced into involvement in illegal activities ranging from bag snatching to petty theft to smuggling drugs or weapons. Street children may also resort to stealing food or clothing as a means of survival.
Although street children are not your typical children, they are still children. They like to play, but often report a lack of safe places to play. Alternative forms of entertainment include the mind-altering kind. Street children have a high risk of becoming a substance abusers. The drugs of choice used by street children are typically glue or solvents, amphetamines and opiates.
The justice system has strained the relationship with street children. These children are often already stigmatized by police and the public. Upon a complaint, disturbance or accusation of a crime, these children are often dealt with informally and not taken into formal custody. Street children suffer from beatings by police, shopkeepers, and other adults. This conduct reinforces the perception of street children as criminals rather than victims. Street children report being subject to police harassment, beatings, abuse, and sexual violence. Bullying also a problem among the children.
Encounters with street children are almost a guarantee for foreign travelers that visit Asian countries. The following stories describe encounters in different countries in Asia between foreigners and street children.
Other tourists report, having witnessed events with street children in Vietnam including incidents where five or six street children physically attacking, a foreigner. They will grab him or her and hang from their appendages and beg them to make a purchase. They do this to foreigners that they perceive to be wealthy to get him or her to slow down and make a purchase under distress to the mob of children. Vietnamese adults watch but do not intervene.
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, there are many indoor-outdoor restaurants along the river. Another witness, who chooses to remain anonymous, from the Unites States, recalls an encounter she had with a group of street children selling items. “My three friends at I sat down at a 24-hour pizza restaurant. Before the waitress could even take our order there were four kids standing in between each of us. All of them were carrying different items to sell. We all said no thank you, unswayed, the children would not leave their stance or the restaurant. They got closer to each of us and began begging for purchases to be made. No one still chose to purchase. At this point, the children began using verbal abuse as a method of persuasion. One person was told, ‘ If you don’t buy something, your plane will fall out of the sky,’ another person was told, ‘don’t be a lady-boy, be a man, buy a bracelet,’ and I was told, ‘You are not from the United States, you are from Africa, you just want to be from there.’ (A faulty attempt at an insult I presume). All of the children spoke perfect English, yet because the time at night this occurred I do not think they anticipated going to school the next day. The bullying behavior continued until I asked the manager to kick the children out. At which time the children used hand gestures and curse words to bid us farewell.”
A French woman named Mirka, was traveling in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when she was accosted by a street child selling items. They approached her while she was sitting in a coffee shop one morning and she declined. The child begged and pleaded, and she still said no. Abruptly, the child left, only to return and throw a squirming large cockroach at her face and down her shirt and called her a “Bitch.”
In Phuket, Thailand, I, the author, met a street child named Anna, she was eight years old. Anna and her sister were selling flowers late at night at the bars in what is considered to be the red light district. I was sitting on a bar across from the actual district itself. Cambodian natives, Anna, and her sister had been sold by her parents to the man they worked for now in Thailand. She said he had also purchased three young boys to sell things for him as well. Working 12 to 14 hour days in 105-115 degree weather, Anna says she receives one bowl of rice a day and a place to sleep that is damp. Anna was nervous when we talked and their appeared to be a supervising adult that was attempting to be unassuming to ensure the child workers were not asking for help or trying to escape. As he approached, he scared Anna enough that when he passed and causally stopped at the store next door she immediately stopped talking to me, and ran to continue selling to other customers. I only met her sister once. Her sister was seven years old and I met her at 2:30 a.m. in a bar downtown. She offered me a lei made of flowers that was for sale, I declined. She offered again, I declined. Despite my object, she put the lei around my neck and then grabbed my hand and proceeded to begin to give me a professional caliber hand massage. I stopped her and returned the lei, at which time she got a phone call on her cell phone and walked to the next bar. A Thai friend overheard her conversation and interpreted the phone call. I was later told that she was told she was spending too much time talking to me. This is an example of labor trafficking, the selling of the children; forcing children to do labor for many hours of the day without pay, little food, and poor living conditions or a reward for working instead of going to school. These children are taught key words in English for the sole purpose of engaging in conversation to sell items, or themselves.
An man from Finland, Tomas Darth, went to visit Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in March of 2015. Among other things, Ho Chi Minh City, is an urban area known for it’s great nightlife and authentic cuisine. Tomas and his travelling companion chose to set out to see the nightlife and went to a famous area for restaurants and bars. They happened upon a nice indoor/outdoor bar and had a seat around 2:30 a.m. After placing their order, and while waiting for their first round of drinks, Tomas was approached by a seven-year-old Vietnamese girl. She had long black hair in pigtails and wore a pink Hello Kitty outfit, and cute by every standard. The little girl was carrying various types of bubblegum on a candy tray that tied around her neck. The tray displayed the gum to potential customers. Smiling, the little girl presented her wares. Tomas declined politely. The little girl stood her ground, refusing to leave the table, pointing to the candy. Tomas declined politely again. Next, the little girl leaned into Tomas’ personal space and pinched his nose with all her might and verbal demanded in English for him to make a purchase. Stunned by the audacity of the little girl, he still politely declined. At that point she hoisted her index finger in the air, then slid it across Tomas’ neck from left to right. “You buy or you die,” she clearly stated in English. The intensity in her eyes and seriousness of her violence frightened Tomas. Perplexed, Tomas gave her the equivalent of 10 cents in the U.S. dollar for the gum. She proudly took the money, gave him a pack of gum, and then moved to the next table of foreigners at the bar to begin the same extortion. All night Tomas observed that she only approached foreigner. The local people did not seem to be shocked at how late it was for her to be out, no visible adult supervision occurred. He observed the little girl sell many candies effectively and did so until 4:00 a.m. when he returned to his hotel. She was still out working when he left. He fled the country of Vietnam two days later, feeling as if he had met the meanest little bubblegum girl in the world.
The numbers of street children generally do not decrease. Those who grow up on the street are replaced by others. It may be considered that formal and informal social structures and enterprises employ street children. The deviant recruitment occurs purely from the notion that there is a necessity and lack of other opportunities for children. In desperation for needing jobs and other economic escape routes that leads then to job opportunities provided by life on the street.
The street children of Asia are plentiful and they have a high rate of recidivism, which is a never ending cycle. The poverty drives unsavory ways to make money due to the desperation of families and the lack of opportunities. Street children can be a danger to others, but more importantly, a danger to themselves. Do not support organizations that use child labor because it enhances global poverty. The first Millennium Goal, to eradicate extreme poverty, requires addressing all demographics of the impoverished population. The street children of Asia are in need of aid, in order to improve their poverty-stricken lives.
– Erika Wright
Sources: Asian Development Bank, Street Children Resources
Photo: Kids Rights English