Rescue or ruin in Manila?

Rescue or ruin in Manila?

Arts/Sciences student Cameron Sugden has been volunteering with the organization Bahay Tuluyan in Manila, The Philippines, which helps street children who would otherwise be locked up by authorities. He told ANU Reporter about the extent of the problem.

Cameron Sugden�s photographs show the strength of spirit of street kids in the Philippines

Cameron Sugden’s photographs show the strength of spirit of street kids in the Philippines.

How did you did you find out about Bahay Tuluyan?

I volunteered with Australian Volunteers International in 2006. Along with three other Australian students, I conducted research into the situation of children in conflict with the law within Laguna Province [in the Philippines]. Children of all ages were being arrested – – mostly because of minor crimes such as sniffing solvent, pick-pocketing, or breaking the curfew – and placed into jail cells for indefinite periods of time.  Not being separated from adult offenders who have committed serious offences, these children were often subject to abuse, neglect and exploitation from the adult prisoners. The report we produced was used by Bahay Tuluyan to gain some insight into what services and facilities were available to children in conflict with the law

Why are street children treated so poorly in the Philippines?

Because both the very rich and the very poor often need to occupy the economic centres of the Philippines, poverty is very much in view of the more affluent residents of Manila. Like all the other mega-cities of Asia, it’s common to see luxury residential quarters, office towers, hotels, and shopping malls sitting beside and above squatter settlements.

Generally, street children have refused to remain in neglected, hidden away areas of the city. We found that the majority of street children had staked out the most beautified areas of the city – squares, major highways, outside shopping centres, markets, fountains, tourist attractions, and near restaurants. These are areas of the city that are rich in resources: people to beg from, tourists to sell small items to, restaurants that hand out free food, grass to sleep on, fountains to wash in, and plenty of areas to play. But they are also areas of the city that the wealthier residents of the city would prefer to claim as their own – and to keep ‘beautiful’.

This situation has given rise to many uncomfortable encounters between the rich and poor. While walking along the streets or sitting in a restaurant, you’re often approached by snotty-nosed, barefooted, half-naked street children asking for food. Others can be seen tapping on tinted car windows, asking for money. Walking down the steps to the train station, you see mothers holding out malnourished babies. And in the parks or outside the local 7/11, street children can be found sniffing rugby (a brand of glue). This seems to have incubated a lot of distrust, frustration, and hostility among the general public towards street children.  Street children are often called ‘yagit’ by the general public – which translates as ‘rubbish on the street’.  

The wealthier residents of Manila seem to have engaged in a number of methods to remove unsightly poverty from view. Retreating to gated communities or spending great amounts of their time in one of Manila’s mega-malls provides one means if you have the money. Those who can’t afford to go to these extreme lengths – and so continue to experience uncomfortable encounters with the poor on a daily basis – seem to be the ones that are placing pressure on the government to remove unsightly street children, along with the uncomfortable emotions they evoke, from the urban landscape.

Until more recent years, the removal of homeless children from the streets of Manila has been conducted under the guise of ‘arrest’. But over the past decade, the Philippine government has been the target of much international and domestic condemnation for its mistreatment of street children. So the arrest of street children has become less and less common. In 2006, the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act was enacted, banning the arrest and detainment of children under the age of 15 for any reason.

In more recent years, there appears to have been a shift in discourse from ‘street children as dangerous and criminal’ to ‘street children in need of special protection’. Now, children are not so much ‘criminal’ and ‘dangerous’ as they are ‘neglected’, ‘abused’, and ‘malnourished’. Unfortunately, this major shift in discourse has only been accompanied by a minor shift in practice.

Street children are still being indiscriminately, violently and involuntarily taken from the streets and detained in prison-like centres. The only difference is that this practice is now called ‘rescue’, making it more resilient to criticism from those less concerned with details beyond summarized tables and colourful graphs (this includes people and organizations in the international community too of course).

In the end, our research quite clearly shows that the ‘rescue’ of street children in Manila seems to be motivated by a concern with urban hygiene and the protection of the more wealthy citizens of the city from the poor over and above any concern with the welfare of street children themselves. Of course, there are plenty of individuals and organisations who do prioritise the needs of street children above all other concerns, but these people are typically marginalised and starved of resources.

We are, of course, not against protecting street children. The risks that children face on the streets are profound and real. We were concerned with the indiscriminate ‘rescue’ of street children, the violent and involuntary methods by which they are removed from the streets, and the unnecessary harm inflicted upon them during their detention.

What are the conditions like on the street?

Terrible. Diseases such as pneumonia, cholera, hookworms, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis, bronchitis, typhoid, and tetanus are all common killers among street children. I can’t remember seeing one street child that didn’t have some skin infection – and they just don’t seem to heal. Inaccessibility to basic health facilities, which are now mostly privatised, ensures many of these children die of preventable and treatable illnesses.

What are the rescue centres like?

Often, street children reside in areas discarded by the more wealthy as disaster prone and dangerous. So injuries and accidents are common.

The welfare system in the Philippines is virtually non-existent. So in order to survive, Manila’s street children are often forced to beg and steal, making them especially vulnerable to being taken into custody. Addiction to glue (often used to quell hunger) along with anti-vagrancy and curfew laws also increases the risk of them being arrested by
police or ‘rescued’ by welfare staff.

Along with brutality inflicted by government workers (mainly police or ‘rescuers’), street children are often at risk of being victims of exploitation, sexual assault, traffic accidents, and violence. Many street children are run over by cars and jeepnees while selling items or begging on highways. Pimps often roam the streets at night looking for young girls and boys they can prostitute.

One of their greatest fears is being rescued. When a rescue van would arrive, they would run away – often into heavy traffic. The rescue van can arrive at any time. The use of batons is common. The vast majority of children we interviewed were injured in some way during their ‘rescue’. Rescuers receive no training other than self-defence and are often former street children themselves (sometimes offered food to do the dirty work). Volunteers wear no uniform or ID. Sometimes they are drunk during the rescue operation. During one rescue we observed, a group of young men carrying batons roamed the streets like a pack of wolves finding street children they could ‘rescue’.

Children are literally being taken from their mother’s side. We met one homeless woman who had two of her three children taken from her three years ago. She hasn’t heard from them since.

Many children are rescued while sleeping (rescue teams admit that they do so because children often run away from them). One six year old girl said it was the last thing she thought about as she went to sleep each night in the park. So the majority of street children we talked to seemed to live in perpetual fear of being ‘rescued’, often because it meant being separated from their family. So there are long lasting psychological injuries being inflicted on children too – by the ‘welfare’ system!

The majority of children are taken to the Reception and Action Centre (RAC). The conditions in there are horrendous.

It looks very much like a prison. There are high walls and barbed fences. A security guard sits at the entrance, pistol, capsicum spray and handcuffs around his waist belt. Staff roam the courtyard, batons in hand.

During our visit, the rooms were very overcrowded, the boys had no toilet (and the girls only one), and there were no mattresses. Children were sleeping on the wooden floor.

So if street children are considered yagit, then RAC can certainly be considered Manila’s mass dumping ground for the poor. Obviously, the welfare of ‘rescued’ children is not the primary concern

What is required? How will your research help?

First, I think people need to know the obvious: indiscriminate ‘rescues’ are inflicting both immediate and long-lasting injuries upon Manila’s street children. This includes not only the general public who are placing pressure on the government to keep the city clean and to ensure they are protected from the so called criminal, contagious, and disorderly masses of Manila, but also those involved in the practice of rescue itself. I think that once people know what’s happening, the international and domestic communities will make a stand – just like they did with the arrest of street children.

As I said before, calling street-cleaning ‘rescue’ has proven a very effective away of making this practice more resilient to criticism. How can you argue against ‘rescuing’ children in need of special protection? So by demonstrating quite clearly that its harmful, you can challenge peoples taken-for-granted beliefs about the city’s treatment of street children. And part of this, I think, involves making people more aware of just how dangerous misleading discourses can be in shaping our moral stance on particular practices. It’s incredibly dishonest to call a practice which harms children ‘rescue’. So making people ‘honest’ is another major hurdle to jump.

The primary aim of our research was to provide evidence that indiscriminate ‘rescues’ are traumatic and ineffective for the children involved. We found plenty of evidence to demonstrate that rescues fail to take into account the unique needs, circumstances and experiences of street children. Our findings were based on interviews with over 160 street children, 140 people from the general public, numerous street families and former street children, and senior staff working for government agencies involved in the practice of rescue.

Currently, Bahay Tuluyan is holding meetings with senior staff from all the government agencies involved in rescue operations. Bahay Tuluyan, along with many other NGOs in Manila, are calling for an immediate suspension of all indiscriminate rescues in the city. There’s been more and more publicity about indiscriminate ‘rescues’, including a recent article in Manila Times.

A drama group from BT also performs a play about the harmful nature of indiscriminate rescues. Many of the children in the play have been rescued themselves in the past. They have been performing at various venues around the city and the target audience is the general public.

Street children need to be re-humanized too. By lowering street children to the status of garbage on the street, they are immediately placed outside society’s moral circle. Overcoming this may involve a combination of public education, challenging taken-for granted beliefs and stereotypes among those working with street children, and fostering more positive interactions between the general public, community workers, and street children. Some schools in Manila are starting to send students to squatter settlements to live with poor families for a week or so. I think that’s a great idea. It brings poverty back into the collective consciousness and allows people to weave their own life story into those of the poor.
There’s been way too much focus on short-term, quick fix solutions. The ‘rescue’ of street children takes months, years, even decades. NGOs around the world are producing some really practical and innovative programs that provide more durable solutions to the problems street children face.  We tried to include as many as these as possible in the recommendations section of our report.
The city’s concern with city beautification does not preclude the proper treatment of street children who inhabit public spaces in the city. If the government provides a shelter where street children feel protected, where they are provided with food, clean water, medical care, and education, where they can play and socialize, and where they are free to leave at any time, street children will be much more likely to voluntarily remove themselves from these beautified spaces and spend more time in shelters. And with a full tummy, street children will be less likely to ‘hassle’ the general public. So it seems obvious that city beautification and the protection of street children can be pursued simultaneously.

Actually, many NGOs like BT are providing the kind of shelters I described above. The government needs to provide centres like BT with more financial and technical support.



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