In a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among its street children, the Ethiopian government has rounded up and put in shelters more than 4,100 of them since March and the drive continues as coronavirus cases rise nationwide.
Ethiopia has recorded at least 2,670 cases and 40 deaths, and its caseload has more than doubled since the start of June.
“I was willing (to go to a shelter) because I wanted to save myself from the coronavirus,” Olana a 17-year-old street beggar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from a shelter in the southern city of Hawassa. “I was really afraid.”
Olana is one of an estimated 10,000 homeless children in Ethiopia’s capital.
Despite rapid growth in the past decade, inequality is stark in Ethiopia where a growing number of children have been driven from their homes – by poverty or neglect – and ended up begging or selling wares to survive life on the streets, charities said.
Some are subjected to labour exploitation and sexual abuse; others become addicted to sniffing glue or drugs such as khat.
About 16 million children aged between 5 and 17 are engaged in child labour across Ethiopia, a 2018 national survey found.
Street children who are taken to shelters by the authorities or charities receive food, clothes, healthcare and counseling. They tend to stay for between three and six months before being reunited with their relatives or returned to their communities.
“(Many) have to recover from drug (addiction) and psychosocial problems,” said Nigat Kebede, a director at the Elshadai Relief and Development Association that runs seven shelters for vulnerable people, including the one in Hawassa.
Most street children come from rural areas and have at least one living parent, yet family reunification efforts have been put on hold due to the pandemic, said Mulugeta Tefera, a civil servant who leads the Labor and Social Affairs Bureau in Addis.
In the long term, the government plans to create more job opportunities for children back home, Mulugeta said, so they do not return to the streets in Addis where they are prey to abuse.
Child rights activists and academics said children must not be forced to stay in shelters, and should be given a say in their future rather than pressured to head home without a plan.
“From a public health perspective, there is a need to offer … safe and supportive shelter,” said Karin Heissler from the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) in Ethiopia.
“But you need to balance it with a human rights approach that ensures … children are not forced into confinement,” she said ahead of World Day Against Child Labour on June 12.
“Shelters have to be recognized as a temporary solution.”
Campaigners have previously raised concerns about children being violently removed from the streets – especially ahead of high-profile events in Addis such as African Union summits – while a law was drafted in 2019 to ban begging on the roadside.
Yet charities said the authorities had shown progress in recent months regarding their treatment of street children and working more closely with civil society groups on the issue.
For some children such as Olana, the idea of returning to life on the streets is unfathomable after years of hardship.
“I’m fed up … life on the street is difficult: the police beat you, the rain falls on you, nights are chilly,” he said.
“I just want to go back to my family,” added Olana, who comes from the eastern part of Ethiopia’s Oromia region. “I can farm, herd (animals), and maybe I can go back to school again.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)