Anissa S. Febrina, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
They live with no roofs over their heads and no parents to look after them. They have to deal with the toughest experiences the streets have to offer.
And above all that, street children are also prone to exploitation as drug traffickers, recent research has revealed.
Some 16 percent of street children in Greater Jakarta are or have been involved in drug trafficking, a study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) says.
The study of 255 street children in East, West and South Jakarta found 40 admitted acting as drug traffickers.
"Most of them are purely exploited in the illegal trade," ILO’s program officer for child drug trafficking, Dede Saraswati, said recently.
According to the ILO report, children as young as 13 are engaged in Jakarta’s drugs trade, while around four percent of all drug users are aged under 17.
The latest report and earlier research show there are at least four ways in which children enter the drug trade.
According to Tarumanagara University psychologist Irwanto, drug use and addiction is one path for children to become drug dealers. Orphans or runaways in need of money are also susceptible to falling into the drug trade, as are children closely related to drug users or traffickers or those linked to drug dealers at a very young age.
Peer pressure and the exploitation of children’s naivete were cited as the third and fourth factors pushing children into the trade.
Surya — not his real name — was one child forced by circumstances into drug dealing.
Coming from as a refugee from Ambon several years ago, the 17-year-old boy was promised by his uncle that he could continue his education in the capital.
However, Surya soon became restless and ran away from his uncle. Out on the streets, he met someone who offered him a Rp 150,000 loan — to be repaid anytime at 20 percent interest — for him to become a drug retailer.
Surya alternated between being a street musician and a marijuana dealer in Condet, East Jakarta. He soon ended up using the drugs he sold himself.
Surya has given up drug dealing, but he admitted was still a marijuana user.
"The smell makes me want to sing even more," he said.
Surya’s experience, along with other reports of child drug dealers in Jakarta, represents only the tip of the iceberg.
"In most instances, being very young and having either family or financial problems makes children the most vulnerable to being lured and recruited to sell drugs," Irwanto explained.
"When they’re already using drugs, that puts them at the most risk," he said.
A separate 2005 survey by the Tarumanagara University School of Psychology revealed that 92 percent of drug users had been involved in trafficking at least once.
Two 16-year-old boys from East Jakarta — who also asked to be anonymous — were introduced to drug dealers by their cousin and friends.
Both have delivered drugs since, with one of them also packing shabu-shabu (crystal methamphetamine) and using putaw (low-grade heroin) since 2000.
But it is the factor of childhood naivete that requires more complicated intervention to deal with personal relationships between adult dealers and child traffickers.
For instance, if children simply fall into drug dealing because they are naive, why don’t they grow out of it when they are old enough to understand what they are doing?
Money of course is the obvious answer. But more than that, for street children who spend their lives protecting themselves, "maintaining good relationships with influential people" was another reason they stuck with the drug trade, Irwanto concluded.