BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Street children are a common sight in Bangkok's numerous tourist spots - selling flowers and begging for money day and night.
Many of the children are from neighbouring - and impoverished - Cambodia and Myanmar for whom Thailand is an attractive place to earn a living to support their families.
Peuan Peuan (meaning "friends" in Thai) was set up 2006 by Friends-International, a non-profit organisation that works with street children.
In 2013, it worked with over 2,600 children and young people in Bangkok and greater Bangkok, providing psycho-social services, education and medical care directly on the streets, in vulnerable communities and in three shelters and two detention centers run by the Thai government.
Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to Vuthaya Charoenpol, country programme director of Friends- International in Thailand.
Q: How many street children are there in Bangkok?
A: According to a snapshot survey - counting street children in one area or city to estimate the number of street children on a specific day - we conducted in August last year with government and non-governmental organisations in eight strategic areas in Bangkok, there were 199 children and young people, meaning up to 24 years old. Of these, 167 where street children who were 18 or younger.
Q: Where do these children come from? How old are they?
A: Most of them are very young - 5 years or under - and 80 percent of these children are Cambodian. A quarter of the 199 children and youth are street working children. These are children who work on the street on a regular basic (everyday or at least every week) but stay at their caregivers’ home. They are scavengers, street sellers (flowers, candies, souvenirs, etc) and shoe shiners. Two thirds of these are Thai and 23 percent are Burmese. A little over half of them are male.
Of the 199 children and youth, 56 percent beg. According to the snapshot surveys, most of the children who are begging on the street (accompanied by caretakers) are Cambodian, while working children in (touristy areas like) Khaosan road or in Soi Cowboy are from Cambodia and Myanmar.
Eighteen percent of these children live on the street.
Q: How did they become street children?
A: Some of the reasons are domestic violence, abuse and poverty.
Q: What are the biggest challenges these street children face?
A: Poor health, hygiene and adequate nutrition issues and risk of abuse and exploitation. (Our) Outreach team provides direct support to save lives and monitor of well-being of the children on the street. If they voluntarily to return to Cambodia, Friends-International and its partners provide support to family and reintegrate children to school.
Begging in central Bangkok gives very attractive incomes so it’s not a one day solution to convince them to voluntarily return to Cambodia.
The longer children have been living and working on the street, the more difficult it is to reintegrate them to become a productive citizen in the future.
Q: What kind of support do they receive from organisations like Friends?
A: Direct psycho-social support, first aids, medical referral, counselling, reintegration, life skills education such as personal hygiene, safe migration and sexually transmitted diseases. Our outreach team distributes the ‘Peuan Peuan Hotline card’. It’s available in Cambodian, Thai, English and Burmese.
There are services and support available like healthcare but most of them are afraid of accessing services due to their illegal status.
Q: What are some of the myths about street children in Bangkok?
A: When talking about street children in central Bangkok, people (both local and foreigner) always think they are gangs, mafia and human trafficking. For Cambodian children and caretakers whom the Peuan Peuan team have been working with, most of the parents or caretakers are economic migrants. They bring along their children to beg as it’s well known that Bangkok provides attractive income - a minimum of 300 baht ($10) to 1,000 baht ($30) a day and even more in high tourist season.
What we are trying to combat here is to promote ‘Safe Migration’ so that all economic migrants, young migrants, etc are aware of those risk and vulnerability of exploitations. That is to say, to empower those who might be at risk when migrating, so that they are not trapped in the exploitation or human trafficking ring.
To protect vulnerable children is not a one person’s job, but the responsibility of the community as a whole. NGOs like Friends and social workers provide support and services so that in the long term, we could work with the family to become economically stable and they can provide better care and education to children.
But it’s not enough for only social workers to work on the ground. Other parts of community also need to take their steps to ensure ‘safe’ environment and non-violence space for children, so that they can become productive citizens.