A controversial plan put forward by an Egyptian member of parliament to round up street children and place them in training and rehabilitation camps overseen by retired army officers has alarmed children's rights advocates.
"The phenomenon of street children is a serious challenge that, if left unchecked, can become a ticking time bomb," lawmaker Ayat El Haddad warned during a parliamentary hearing with Minister of Social Solidarity Nevine Kabbaj in early February.
El Haddad's idea of placing street children in rehabilitation camps was inspired by a similar initiative undertaken by Mohamed Ali (considered the founder of modern Egypt) two centuries ago. The Albanian Ottoman governor, who ruled the country from 1805 to 1848, reportedly gathered some 300,000 street children and placed them in a desert camp in the south of the country where they were trained by master craftsmen.
"The proposed camp would not only help build the capacities of street children, it would also deepen their sense of belonging in their communities, helping counter the threat they pose to society," she said.
El Haddad also suggested that the camp be managed by retired army officers and that the (older) children be recruited into the army. "We ought to make use of the extraordinary capabilities these children have such as their ability to tolerate cold weather."
Some activists on social media were dismayed by the comments, viewing them as intolerant; skeptics expressed doubt that street children would learn anything "in such institutions." Others welcomed El Haddad's remarks, agreeing that street children represent a real danger to society.
The negative perception of some Egyptians toward street children stems from the children's stigmatization by the media, which often portrays them as "criminals" and "thugs." While it is not uncommon for these minors to engage in petty theft, street brawls and substance abuse, some children's rights advocates argue that the homeless children living on the streets are, in fact, victims of "a collective failure by society."
Manal Shaheen, a child development consultant and former Child Helpline director at the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, dismissed the lawmaker's idea as "outrageous."
"To understand the real needs of street children, we must first determine what the term means," she told Al-Monitor. "Some of the children we see on the streets are working children who earn a livelihood selling Kleenex or other items to help sustain their families; they return home at the end of each day."
"Others are migrants from rural communities who believe they can earn some money doing odd jobs in cities like Cairo and Alexandria; they return to their rural villages at the end of the week," she said. "Street children are in fact, the homeless children who have made the street their home and who are without adequate protection and aren't supervised by responsible adults."
Iman Bibars, a co-founder and chairperson of the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women, an Egyptian nongovernmental organization providing credit and legal aid to impoverished women also rejected the legislator's idea, describing it as "tantamount to putting homeless children in prison and treating them as villains and criminals when they are in fact, vulnerable victims."
Data on street children is scanty and the exact number of children that have made the street their home is unknown. The 2014 Population Council survey puts the total number of street children at 16,000 but that figure has been disputed by the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, which insists the actual numbers are much higher.
Bibars told Al-Monitor that through her work over the years, she has found that children from large underprivileged families often leave home to earn a living on the streets. "Others are from broken families or leave home to escape violence at the hands of abusive parents or a stepparent."
Those children often wake up to the harsh reality that life on the streets is even tougher as it subjects them to exploitation and violence, sometimes at the hands of police whose duty is to protect them. "The minors also experience violence at the hands of ordinary citizens and other street children; they often succumb to peer pressure, learning street behavior and survival tactics from each other," Bibars said.
Although Egypt's Child Law No. 176 of 2008 includes provisions that require the state to be responsible for the welfare of children and ensure their protection from all forms of discrimination and violence, "There remains a vast gap between the existing legislation and the reality on the ground for street children," Shaheen lamented.
The government has in recent years stepped up efforts to protect children at risk, including street children. "The overall approach of the government focuses on reducing the risk factors that are known to trigger children leaving their homes," said Jonathan Crickx, the chief of communication at UNICEF Egypt. "This is done by strengthening child protection systems and expanding anti-poverty and social protection interventions such as the national cash transfer program Takaful and Karama," he told Al-Monitor.
Initiatives undertaken by the Ministry of Social Solidarity to address the needs of vulnerable children include the "Children Without Shelter" program, which is being carried out in collaboration with Long Live Egypt (Tahya Misr Fund) and civil society organizations such as Caritas. The program entails dispatching mobile vans to areas where there are large numbers of street children in governorates such as Qalyubia, Cairo and Alexandria. First aid kits are distributed among the homeless minors, who are trained to use the kits to deal with minor accidents and injuries, according to Maged Zaki, a project manager with Caritas.
Ministry representatives also try to collect official documents such as birth certificates without which the homeless children are unable to seek refuge in shelters. A ministry source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the press said most street children have no documents as they hail from second- or third-generation homeless families.
"We try to help the children transition from street life to full integration into a supportive family system — be it their own family, the extended family or an alternative family; we do this by helping them give up the habits and attitudes they have picked up while living on the streets, including violence and by settling family disputes so that the homeless child may return home," Zaki said.
He continued, "We deal with the children case by case through case management units that seek to identify the reason why the child left home before providing him or her with tailor-made services that fit their needs, be it psychological, medical or social support, to help the child eventually reunite with his/her family."
The rehabilitation process may take from six months to two years to complete during which time the children, many of whom are school dropouts, may be persuaded to return to school. If that is not possible, they attend literacy classes or are sent to community schools in their districts, according to Zaki. These one-classroom schools target out-of-school children (especially girls) in deprived areas and use interactive learning techniques to teach children essential life skills.
The Child Helpline launched by the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood in 2005 enables children to file complaints and seek help if threatened with violence or abuse. According to Zaki, whose organization is collaborating with the council on operating the Child Helpline in four governorates (Cairo, Giza, Assiut and Minya), many of the complaints come from witnesses who report incidents of violence, including sexual assault or abuse of children living on the streets.
Shaheen said that one the council staff receive a complaint, "They immediately reach out to the child, who very often is traumatized." said Shaheen. She said that the "children cannot be forced to move into shelters," the council connects them with nongovernmental organizations "such as the Hope Village Society and Ana El Masry that can help them recover from their traumas."
The Ministry of Social Solidarity continues to follow up on the cases even after the homeless child has been reunited with his/her family, offering financial support to those families to ensure the child's safety and well-being,
UNICEF is collaborating with the ministry to activate child protection committees (whose formation was mandated by the 2008 Child Law), which Crickx said "play an important role as a child protection network." He added, "We are also enhancing the capacity of social workers," a move hailed by Shaheen as crucial in addressing the needs of vulnerable children.:.
"Many of the existing shelters lack experienced, well-trained staff and this may drive some children back on the street, leaving us where we started,” she lamented.