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Street kids find a home in empty refugee camps

The onset of rains in Zambia has been hailed as a good thing by farmers, but is not so welcome to young Moses Mulenga.

Along with thousands of other children, he hustles a living on the streets of Zambia's capital, Lusaka. Finding somewhere dry to sleep each night is just one of the many challenges they face, but Mulenga's luck may be about to change.

Refugee camps dotted across the country are emptying as Angolans looking to take advantage of the 2002 peace agreement return home, and the Zambian government has hit upon a new use for them - shelter for street children, where skills training can also be provided.

"The first group of children will be accommodated at Meheba in North Western Province," the Minister of Sport, Youth and Child Development, George Chulumanda, told IRIN. "We are looking at an initial 1,000 children from Lusaka before we gradually spread into the provincial centres."

Chulumanda said the government was concerned about the rising number of children on the streets as a direct result of poverty and the impact of HIV/AIDS.

"The other concern, which is not exactly new, is that these guys [street kids] are growing up, and very soon they will want to marry and support families, and the only way they will do that will be to turn to crime," Chulumanda pointed out. "That is why we want to make them productive before they can become destructive."

He said an undisclosed number of children were already being rounded up and readied for the move to Meheba, which for decades has been home to hundreds of thousands of Angolan refugees.

However, the government's proposal has met a mixed reaction from the street children that IRIN spoke to in Lusaka.

"I think it's a good idea, especially if I can learn a skill, like mechanics, in the camp instead of staying here, sleeping on the streets and begging for food every day," said Mulenga.

But a compatriot, originally from the mining town of Kabwe about 150 km north of Lusaka, who simply called himself Chongo, was sceptical.

"I have never heard of the place you are talking about, but it sounds like it's quite far from Lusaka, so I have to think about it before I can decide to go," he said.

Poverty and the impact of HIV/AIDS are sending increasing numbers of children onto the streets, where they eke out a living by begging. The government regards the population as a growing menace.

"Our target is to completely rid the streets of the street kids," Chulumanda said. "I know it sounds ambitious, but it is not impossible with a little determination."

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) child protection officer Gabriel Fernandez told IRIN that the agency supported the plan, but wanted to ensure that the childrens' rights would not be abused in the camps.

"We are also very interested in ensuring that the people working with the children are sufficiently trained to work with children and have knowledge of child psychology," he commented. "Perhaps of greater concern is how the government plans to intergrate the children into society once they have completed their skills training."

Fernandez said UNICEF had already visited a camp in the northern mining town of Kitwe, about 380 km north of Lusaka, and the general impression was the children were happy to be off the streets and in an organised facility with people to take care of them.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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