In Beirut, you can find street children at almost every major traffic intersection, washing car windows, selling chewing gum or begging. Their dirty little hands tap the car window while their bright eyes look into yours in search of signs compassion.
Samir is only 12 years old, but living on the streets has made him grow up quickly. Palestinian of origin, his story is a sad –but all too common – one. “I’ve been begging since I was eight,” he said. “My mother left when I was five, and now my father beats me and makes me beg for money.”
Samir is only one of thousands of children eking out a living on the streets of Lebanon’s cities. According to Dr Nabil Watfa of the International Labour Organization, there are roughly 100,000 children currently working in the country, including those on the streets.
“The number of children working on the streets is difficult to determine,” said Watfa. “Anyone who gives you a definite number would be fooling you.”
Some of these children are the victims of coercion an organised crime. “Many children are forced to work as beggars, and even prostitutes, by organised gangs, which pay them with cigarettes or drugs,” said Jannot Sanah, a psychological supervisor at the Lebanese Evangelical Institute for Social Work and Development.
The institute is one of very few in Lebanon devoted to the issue of street children and the only one working in cooperation with the social affairs ministry.
Limited government role
According to one social affairs official who wished to remain anonymous, the ministry plays a limited role in combating the trend. “Our role is preventive,” he explained. “We try to mingle with the children and attract them to our centres for recreation and education, rather than leaving them on the streets where they are subject to drugs and crime.” He added: “When street children are caught by the police and taken to police stations, our representatives work on moving them to specialised institutes.”
Nevertheless, a lack of resources has ruled out the presence of social representatives at all the country’s police stations. “Security personnel, after making sure the child has no criminal record, contact a specialised institute to take care of the child,” explained one interior ministry official.
According to Sanah, children are also sometimes taken to juvenile court, “where they can be sentenced to spend time at institutes like ours”. Children under 17 can also be sent to juvenile centres or special juvenile sections in prisons.
A lack of funding
The Evangelical Institute takes in children between the ages of three and 18 and aims to provide them with basic education, shelter, healthcare and general protection. Sanah pointed out that most of the children at the institute are Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian or Kurdish, or have a Lebanese mother and a non-Lebanese father. “Very few are Lebanese,” she said, adding that roughly 90 percent of them lack official identification of any kind.
Ever since Lebanon ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, Sanah added, the UN has also occasionally sent the institute refugee children for care. “There was one Syrian girl who we took care of for three years before the UN managed to find a home for her in Australia,” said Sanah. “We currently have an Iraqi child, also sent to us by the UN.”
According to statistics, the institute sheltered 239 children in 2004 and 172 last year. From the beginning of 2006, the centre has received around 90 children, 60 of whom have chosen to remain at the centre. Sanah attributed the drop to “the security situation and tightening security measures on the Syria-Lebanon border, where many of these children and gangs come from”.
Despite its good work, however, the institute – which is financed primarily through donations – is facing hard times. Promised monies from the social affairs ministry have been several months late, said Sanah, which has resulted in a major funding shortfall.
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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