Rescued Filipino street kids still abused
By Philip Tubeza
Philippine Daily Inquirer, November 17, 2009
Street Children in the Philippines is a significant problem. According to the 1998 report, entitled "Situation of the Youth in the Philippines," there are about 1.5 million street children in the Philippines. Everyday, at least a street child is seen walking along the streets, looking for a place to stay.
MANILA, Philippines—"Why did they do that to us when they did not even know us?” Steve Estopito said, recalling the first time years ago when authorities “rescued” him off the streets of Malate, Manila.
Estopito said he was playing with six siblings and cousins under the noonday sun in front of the Malate Church when police in plainclothes swooped down on them and forcibly took them to a dingy center for street children.
“They did not even ask where our parents were. We could not do anything, and we just cried,” he said.
Estopito, who lives in Leveriza, Manila, is one of the estimated 250,000 children who play, earn a living, or live in the Philippines’ dangerous streets.
Authorities conduct periodic sweeps in an attempt to solve the problem.
But child rights advocates claim that these “rescues” are actually “arrests,” and that street children are merely used to meet the rescue teams’ “quotas” before they are released back to the streets.
Estopito said he was eventually “rescued” 12 times but still ended up in the streets. A 13-year-old boy pegged the number of times he was "rescued" at an amazing 59.
These efforts are all to no apparent effect, because government centers lack the resources to keep the children off the streets.
Worse, force is often used on many of the children during “rescues,” and sometimes they are even sexually abused, according to a study sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
The study, produced by the nongovernment organization Bahay Tuluyan, was released Tuesday at the Heritage Hotel as the world marked the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Unicef country representative Vanessa Tobin described the study as “very important."
Titled “Sagip or Huli? Rescue of Street Children in Caloocan, Manila, Pasay and Quezon City," it read in part:
“Rescued children face a number of violations [of] their most basic rights, both as humans and as children, throughout nearly all stages of the rescue operation.
“Rescue operations as currently practiced in [the four cities] are failing to protect children from abuse and exploitation and are sometimes exposing them to these … An independent complaints mechanism is not available or accessible to rescue children.
“Rescue operations are frequently carried out independently, indiscriminately and for reasons other than child protection. The best interests of the children are often secondary to other concerns.”
Also according to the study, rescuers are “frequently unclear about their objectives” and therefore “use inappropriate intervention techniques.”
“This unnecessarily criminalizes, stigmatizes and traumatizes children,” it said.
For the study, 599 street children and 144 “rescuers” from Manila, Quezon City, Caloocan, and Pasay were interviewed.
Said Tobin: "Children end up in the streets for variety of reasons. Sometimes, because they’ve been abused at home.
Sometimes, parents are unable to provide for them and they need to work to survive. Sometimes, because of peer pressure.
“For those reasons, they can end up attracted to street gangs, get involved sniffing solvents, drinking alcohol, taking illegal drugs, drawn to crime, violence, sexual abuse. Often, they end up injured, exploited, abused or killed.”
Tobin said street children posed a challenge not only in the Philippines but in other countries as well.
She said the actual number of street children in the Philippines was not known.
“We think its 250,000, with 50,000 of them highly visible. The problem is greatest within Manila,” she said.
Bahay Tuluyan official Catherine Scerri said 48 percent of the street children interviewed said they were dragged or forced into vehicles when they were “rescued.”
She added that:
* 24 percent said they were "grabbed" and 19 percent said they "voluntarily went along.”
* 42 percent said the authorities chased them, despite a clear policy against chases.
* 35 percent said they were hurt, nine percent said they were helped, and another nine percent said they were cared for.
* 15 percent “consented” to being rescued, 24 percent did not, 61 percent conceded that they could do nothing.
Scerri said the rescuers came from various agencies—the Metro Manila Development Authority, the Department of Social Welfare and Development and its local counterparts, the barangay, and the police.
She said 94 percent of the rescuers did not introduce themselves to the children, and only 53 percent of the children said their rescuers were in uniform.
“The children said they were beaten and their money or belongings were either taken or destroyed. Some were tricked into going with rescuers and told, ‘We’ll take you to Jollibee,’” Scerri said, adding:
“Others were sexually assaulted or inappropriately touched."
Only one percent of the children said the "rescue" was explained to them, Scerri said.
This could be because some of the rescuers carried weapons, contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said, adding that 60 percent carried batons; 15 percent, guns; and 18 percent, handcuffs.
“This was interesting because majority of rescuers said they had a policy of not using force during rescues and they had an understanding of (UN convention). But this was contradicted by presence of weapons during rescue,” she said.
Scerri said 45 percent of those rescued were taken to the Jose Fabella center in Manila while others were taken to the shelters of their local governments.
“Some of the children reported that as soon as they arrived, they were released. This gave the impression that the ‘rescuers’ were just filling quotas,” Scerri said.
She said children usually stayed at shelters for a week, where they had to deal with overcrowding, inadequate bedding, no separate quarters, with “children sleeping on cement floor.”
“There was a lack of resources, generally clothing and sanitation. The children had concerns about the quality and quantity of their food. There were serious allegations of mistreatment and abuse,” Scerri said.
“They were released when they presented their birth certificates or were identified by their parents. Some paid money. Some exchanged sexual favors,” she added.
But after they are released, many if not most of the children, return to the streets.
Scerri said that 30 percent of children they interviewed said they had been “rescued more than five times.”
“Four percent said they were rescued so many times, they could not remember how many … All the children were on street at time of interview (so) there has been no significant change in their situation,” she said.
“(In October, the UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child said they are seriously concerned with the high number of children who live in the streets. There is a continuing lack of systematic and comprehensive strategy. And they are further concerned that rescue operations conducted in various areas of Manila,” Scerri added.
Commission on Human Rights chairperson Leila de Lima, who gave the keynote speech at the launching of the study, said there were even reports that some children had even fallen victim to death squads.
“In major cities, they are targets of these so-called death squads. In recent months however, this has somewhat abated, maybe because of our public inquiry (into death squads),” she said.
De Lima reminded everyone that the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act prohibits jailing children “15 years and below” due to criminal offenses. Authorities usually claim curfew violations when rounding up street children.
“They are not supposed to be treated as children in conflict with the law. They can be arrested but they should not be detained. Because of their young age and limited knowledge, they are not supposed to be treated as criminals,” de Lima said.
“There should be intervention by the concerned authorities before the children are turned over tot heir parents. Sadly, we have very few institutions that cater to the needs of children, particularly street children. Much as they want to do more but they don’t have the resources,” she added.