Lost children

Lost children

The video footage showed children of various ages scaling a fence, jumping outside the covered court and then scampering in all directions. It was a facility of Manila’s city social welfare office, where about 50 children decided that they didn’t like confinement even if it meant free food and lodging.

Many of the children were youth offenders, with cases ranging from petty thievery to drug dealing. The rest were living in the streets and picked up to be cared for by social welfare officers amid the COVID pandemic. After lunch last Thursday, the youth offenders decided to flee, and the street children followed.

Social welfare personnel said they were not notified about the incident by the police. In fact, there has been little effort to keep homeless children off the streets amid the pandemic. They are all over Metro Manila, scrawny and dirty, oblivious to COVID health protocols as they beg for alms or food, sell flower garlands or force motorists to have car windows cleaned. The problem is the lack of facilities and resources where the children can be cared for by the state.

Most of the children live in the streets with their parents. They roam the streets even late at night, begging and opening themselves to possible physical and sexual violence and exploitation. Groups dedicated to child welfare have noted a spike in online sexual exploitation of children amid the pandemic, with the Philippines becoming one of the OSEC hotspots in the world. The groups have noted with sadness that often, the children are exploited for OSEC by their parents themselves.

With the COVID pandemic worsening poverty, children become more vulnerable to neglect and various forms of exploitation. In their families’ destitution, the children are turned into the principal breadwinners. Some religious groups, schools and civic organizations have stepped in, providing food and shelter to some families amid the pandemic.

Yet the resources of the private sector are limited, and the ranks of the street children keep swelling by the day. They are undoubtedly among the four million who are not enrolling this school year. The government will need to do more to save these children from a future without hope.