Current Affairs Opinion

The forgotten voices of street children

For the world’s street children, a life of little mercies just got even more difficult. As one in five people across the world find themselves in lockdown, those most at need in society are finding themselves stuck between the law and the reality of their existence: what can street children do when governments say ‘stay at home’?

The ongoing struggles of street children are changing and growing rapidly, particularly at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic grows across Asia and Africa and into the very poorest of communities.

The every day risks they face grow when their primary sources of income or food have shuttered their doors indefinitely. Street children’s very ‘ability to exist at a subsistence level’ has ‘ended almost overnight’, according to the Consortium for Street Children (CSC), as the bakeries and shops that once supplied them are forced to lock down.

In Dakar, Senegal, the brutal realities of lockdown are gripping the city’s street children. ‘I find it outrageous and inhumane that these children have to be exposed as much as these ones’, one worker for charity Village Pilote told Reuters, ‘They didn’t ask to be on the streets. I think everyone should focus on these children … they are a time bomb for Senegal’.

Children also face the added problem of image. With everyone conscious of hygiene, children forced to beg on the streets represent a perceived ‘health risk’. Those who are on the streets during lockdown are ‘often afraid to get close to the children’

Children’s Centres, which provide street children with playrooms, classrooms and some basic medical care, have been forced to shut down, leaving street children without any safety net in these most uncertain of times.

Activists in Senegal and across Africa claim many governments are unwilling or unable to help. The CSC is warning that some on the streets face ‘brutal crackdown’, and governments are ‘not accepting that they must assist street children with food and water’.

Street children are far more at risk of contracting coronavirus, yet far less likely to see the rewards of any government lockdown. ‘Getting children off the streets’ is seen as key to preventing a devastating outbreak among the children, but the CSC warn that how governments conduct this could have more negative consequences:

‘It is a fine line to draw between highlighting street-connected children’s vulnerability and be seen to be giving the green light for governments to forcibly quarantine or detain these children.

 ‘Street-connected children are at higher risk of being criminalised simply for being on the streets, even if they have nowhere else to go. Sometimes this criminalisation may be intentional as a government may use the pandemic as a reason to “clean up the streets”’.

Many charities and agencies warn that, in the haste to contain the virus, governments may inadvertently criminalise children simply by their status as homeless.

In South Africa, President Ramaphosa’s lockdown continues, and in the early stages many charities were prevented from conducting their work with street children. ‘Young people on the streets were asking where we are’, Mpendulo Nyembe of charity uMthombo told The Guardian, ‘they said they were expecting to see our faces. But we couldn’t engage with them. It is not OK that after a week of lockdown I was begging for permission to be with them’.

‘The vulnerability of this group will go up… their need for services will go up and isolation won’t protect them. The danger is that many people see them even more as diseased and criminal’, said Duncan Ross of UK charity StreetInvest.

As the virus spreads across at risk communities, fears remain that stigmatisation and criminalisation of street children will only get worse. Calls remain for governments to affirm their commitment to protect the rights of the most vulnerable during lockdowns:

‘it is important that we impress upon authorities’, say the CSC, ‘that the public health measures they adopt must proactively protect street-connected children and homeless youth, rather than ignore or forget about them’.