JEDDAH – A recently published study from the research center at King Fahd Security College in Riyadh found that the Kingdom is home to 83,000 street children with their earnings, made through a variety of criminal activities, going to their families or gang ringleaders.
The study says the average age of the children is 7 years old and that they generally originate from poorly educated families, with extreme poverty cited as the most significant factor.
Although a relatively recent phenomenon in the Kingdom, the presence of children living and working on the street has increased noticeably with the huge influx of illegally smuggled children from Asia and Africa, mostly through the southern border with Yemen.
Neglected by families, often deployed by gangs, organized groups of children aged between 6 and 15 group and train before being let loose to roam the streets and earn a crust through anything from pickpocketing to armed robbery.
Away from the battlefield, the gang leaders give orders from dilapidated houses in the most rundown neighborhoods in town.
For months boys are manipulated and trained before they head for the street for illegal beggary, and sometimes violence, to fatten the bank account of their master, and sometimes even the biological father.
The remit of such a child may include daily begging with no days off, distributing contraband material, and robbing shops, with some possible drug use to numb the pain and deal with the hardships of street life. Jeddah is recorded as the most popular place for children to beg in, followed by Makkah and Riyadh
Street children under 20 years old also commonly fall victim to sexual abuse and exploitation, says Mani Al-Dajani, a sociologist at Imam University, in his recent research.
A home to go to
The street has also become a home for children neglected by their families. They may leave home as early as seven in the morning and come back at nine at night. Their families may never bother to ask where they’ve been.
A study funded by the Ministry of Social Affairs recognizes the existence of “street children”, but not in alarming numbers.
Battling with the terminology, Awad Al-Radadi, deputy minister of Social Affairs, says that they may not be street children per se, but rather organized groups of children driven into the street by their families or gang ringleaders. He defines street children as those who at the end of the day have no place to go but the street, a case, he says, which hardly exists in the Kingdom.
Most children found on the street visit their families regularly and might even return every night to sleep at home, but they spend most days and some nights, however, on the street because of poverty, overcrowding, sexual or physical abuse at home, according to the United Nations Agency for International Development.
Al-Radadi is in agreement with Ayman Ismail, a sociologist at Imam University in Riyadh:
“Street children are those who have no place to go to other than the street,” Islmail says. “In which case there are only a few individual cases. The majority are non-Arab and can be spotted around the Haram area in both Makkah and Madina.”
Research carried out by Abdullah Al-Yousef, a sociologist at Imam University in Riyadh, shows that 68 percent of street children were non-Saudi, and found mostly in Makkah and Madina.
Another study found that 94 percent of beggar children deployed by gangs in the streets were born outside the Kingdom, with 54 percent being smuggled into the country.
Foreign children who have been smuggled into the Kingdom to be sent out to the street are routinely arrested, taken to shelter houses, and later deported.
“To curb the growing exploitation of illegal foreign children in the Kingdom, the ministry has opened three new shelters in the Makkah region where foreign children proliferate,” Al-Radadi says.
“At the shelters, they receive the same medical treatment and psychological counseling as the Saudi children.”
After all help has been given, foreign children are handed over to their respective embassies for deportation at the cost of the each country in question.
Saudi children who end up on the street because of family problems are taken to Ministry of Social Affairs shelter houses for long-term care.
Reports show that Saudi children who are victims of family neglect are also easy targets for gang leaders who seek them out with money, electronic games, food, and even free drugs in deprived neighborhoods. Once the gang’s grip has tightened over them, the children drop out of school and join the gangs.
Teachers have been advised to closely monitor student attendance and performance at school. If anything wrong is noticed, the social affairs department should be contacted. Social workers in the community are similarly urged to monitor children in their neighborhoods.
“The fears are real and there are no reliable statistics for the problem,” says Salman Al-Jamil, a social counselor. “Nobody seems to be really worried about what is an ever-growing social concern. The situation here is similar to that of other Arab countries.
“The hidden and isolated nature of street children makes accurate statistics difficult to gather. If left unattended to, it will potentially kill the innocent childhood of a whole generation,” Al-Jamil said.
“Authorities should not shy away from the problem, it is real. We can’t wait for something drastic to happen,” he added. “The country still lacks a full-fledged organization to take care of children and protect them.”
“Wherever poverty and family problems exist, so does this problem, it is found all over the world,” says Misfer Al-Qahtani, a psychologist. “Along with susceptibility to chronic illnesses, street children face mental challenges and difficult financial conditions, he said. The government has deployed teams of sociologists and psychologists to provide help when children are taken to shelters. Saudi street children are cared for and are later helped by charities to find a proper place to live.”
“Community organizations like social affairs departments and schools are needed to help care for the children and send them back into mainstream society to lead normal lives,” Al-Qahtani continues, “but the community should target the root cause of the problem, which is in dysfunctional families and a lack of parental control. These issues need to be targeted through public awareness campaigns in the media, in schools, and in mosques.”
“Every time I see a child at a traffic light, I’m reminded of the abuse of their human, civil, and economic rights,” said one motorist who would like to see child rights policies and legislation.
Human rights bodies in the Kingdom have stepped up efforts to curb the rising numbers of children finding a second home in the street.
Suhaila Zain Al-Abdeen, an executive member of the National Human Rights Society, says that children need to be protected against street and domestic violence.
Child mafias have for a long time preyed on family difficulties and poverty to recruit children for criminal activities, Al-Abdeen says. “Society has already started to look at ways to eradicate it.” - Okaz