By Vincent Lyn

Street children are poor or homeless who live on the streets of a city, town, or village. Some street children, notably in more developed nations, are part of a subcategory called thrown-away children, consisting of children who have been forced to leave home. Thrown-away children are more likely to come from single-parent homes. Street children are often subject to abuse, neglect, exploitation, or, in extreme cases, murder by “clean-up squads” that have been hired by local businesses or police.

Street children throughout the world are subjected to physical abuse by police or have been murdered outright, as governments treat them as a blight to be eradicated-rather than as children to be nurtured and protected. They are frequently detained arbitrarily by police simply because they are homeless, or criminally charged with vague offenses such as loitering, vagrancy, or petty theft. They are tortured or beaten by police and often held for long periods in poor conditions. Girls are sometimes sexually abused, coerced into sexual acts, or raped by police. Street children also make up a large proportion of the children who enter criminal justice systems and are committed finally to correctional institutions (prisons) that are euphemistically called schools, often without due process. Few advocates speak up for these children, and few street children have family members or concerned individuals willing and able to intervene on their behalf.

The term street children refers to children for whom the street more than their family has become their real home. It includes children who might not necessarily be homeless or without families, but who live in situations where there is no protection, supervision, or direction from responsible adults.

While street children receive national and international public attention, that attention has been focused largely on the social, economic and health problems of the children — poverty, lack of education, AIDS, prostitution, and substance abuse. With the exception of the massive killings of street children in Brazil and Colombia, often by police, which Human Rights Watch reported, very little attention has been paid to the constant police violence and abuse from which many children suffer. This often neglected side of street children’s lives has been a focus of Human Rights Watch’s research and action.

The public view of street children in many countries is overwhelmingly negative. The public has often supported efforts to get these children off the street, even though they may result in police round ups, or even murder. There is an alarming tendency by some law enforcement personnel and civilians, business proprietors and their private security firms, to view street children as almost sub-human.

In several countries notably Brazil, Bulgaria and Sudan the racial, ethnic, or religious identification of street children plays a significant role in their treatment. The disturbing notion of “social-cleansing” is applied to street children even when they are not distinguished as members of a particular racial, ethnic, or religious group. Branded as “anti-social,” or demonstrating “anti-social behavior,” street children are viewed with suspicion and fear by many who would simply like to see street children disappear.

In Bulgaria, Guatemala, India and Kenya Human Rights Watch has reported that police violence against street children is pervasive, and impunity is the norm. The failure of law enforcement bodies to promptly and effectively investigate and prosecute cases of abuse against street children allows the violence to continue. Establishing police accountability is further hampered by the fact that street children often have no recourse but to complain directly to police about police abuses. The threat of police reprisals against them serves as a serious deterrent to any child coming forward to testify or make a complaint against an officer.

In Kenya, Human Rights Watch has worked with NGOs and street workers to encourage the establishment of a network for documenting and reporting police abuses against street children, and to improve children’s treatment by police. Yet even in Guatemala, where approximately 300 criminal complaints have been filed on behalf of street children, only a handful have resulted in prosecutions. Clearly, even where there are advocates willing and able to assist street children in seeking justice, police accountability and an end to the abuses will not be achieved without the commitment of governments.

The following are just a couple of examples of arbitrary police abuse on street children in India and Myanmar.

India has the largest population of street children in the world. At least twenty million children live or work on the streets of urban India, laboring as porters at bus or railway terminals; as mechanics in informal auto-repair shops; as vendors of food, tea, or handmade articles; as street tailors; or as ragpickers, picking through garbage and selling usable materials to local buyers.

Indian street children are routinely detained illegally, beaten and tortured and sometimes killed by police. Several factors contribute to this phenomenon: police perceptions of street children, widespread corruption and a culture of police violence, the inadequacy and non-implementation of legal safeguards, and the level of impunity that law enforcement officials enjoy. The police generally view street children as vagrants and criminals. While it is true that street children are sometimes involved in petty theft, drug-trafficking, prostitution and other criminal activities, the police tend to assume that whenever a crime is committed on the street, street children are either involved themselves or know the culprit. Their proximity to a crime is considered reason enough to detain them. This abuse violates both Indian domestic law and international human rights standards.

Street children are also easy targets. They are young, small, poor, ignorant of their rights and often have no family members who will come to their defense. It does not require much time or effort to detain and beat a child to extract a confession, and the children are unlikely to register formal complaints.

Police have financial incentives to resort to violence against children. Many children report that they were beaten on the street because the police wanted their money. The prospect of being sent to a remand home, the police station or jail, coupled with the threat of brutal treatment, creates a level of fear and intimidation that forces children or in some cases, their families, to pay the police or suffer the consequences.

Indian law contributes to the problem. Under the Indian Penal Code, anyone over the age of twelve is considered an adult, and ambiguities in the code concerning the ability of the child to be cognizant of a crime have made it possible for children as young as seven to be treated as adults under the law. There are no provisions in the code that prohibit the detention of juveniles in police stations or jails. The Juvenile Justice Act, which applies to all the states and Union Territories in India except Jammu and Kashmir, does prohibit the detention of “neglected” or “delinquent” juveniles in police lock-ups or jails, but these provisions are routinely ignored by police. Moreover, at the remand stage, the law makes no distinction between neglected and delinquent children, so that a six-year-old orphan on the street and a fifteen-year-old child who has committed murder are likely to be treated the same way under the law, an issue analyzed further below.

Finally, there is the de facto immunity of police from prosecution. The government of India has known about the extent of custodial abuse, including abuse of children, at least since 1979 when the National Police Commission issued a devastating indictment of police behavior. More than a decade and a half later, none of its recommendations have been adopted, and police can detain, torture and extort money from children without much fear of punishment.

More than 700,000 Rohingya children across Asia face severe discrimination and denial of their most basic rights. According to a new report to mark World Refugee Day, No safe haven, Rohingya children across Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia are prevented from accessing quality education and legal protection, which can expose them to abuse, child labour, child marriage, trafficking and detention.

Of the at least 700,000 Rohingya children in Asia, most live outside their home country, Myanmar. The majority now is in Bangladesh, where nearly half a million children are living in refugee camps. But large numbers of Rohingya have also taken refuge in other neighboring Asian countries.

Malaysia hosts more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees — around a quarter of whom are estimated to be children. Thailand (3,000–15,000) and Indonesia (several hundred) host the smallest Rohingya populations of the five countries, with no exact estimates of the number of children. Some 234,000 Rohingya children remain in Rakhine State in Myanmar, of whom around 69,000 are confined to squalid camps. All are subject to severe restrictions on their movement.

The Rohingya community in Myanmar has experienced decades of state-sponsored persecution and violence. Neighboring countries often fail to act as safe havens, as Rohingya refugees continue to be demonized, discriminated against and treated as criminals — locked up in immigration detention centers or left to die on boats trapped at sea for months.

Rohingya girls and boys living outside of Myanmar are afraid to leave their homes in case they are detained and deported as ‘illegal immigrants’. At just 16 years old, Abul left his family in Myanmar and escaped to Malaysia, where he has lived for around 18 months. He said:

“[In Myanmar] my family and I were persecuted from all sides. I wasn’t allowed to work and I was discriminated against there. People harassed us, and my mother and my sister were beaten when I was young. Because we are Rohingya, we were discriminated against, and we weren’t allowed to go out in the evening. If we went out in the evening, the police beat us or arrested us. Sometimes, they took Rohingya youths to the police station and tortured them.

“Once I arrived here, the lockdown started and it became hard to survive. I thought that I could find a job to support to my mother and sisters, but in reality, it is hard to get a job [without papers]. Ever since I arrived, I’ve been afraid of being arrested. I can’t go out [with my friends] when they call me to play because I don’t have documents here. I’m afraid of police and of being arrested.”

15-year-old Hamid left Bangladesh with his father in March last year, bound for Malaysia. They were at sea for seven months before the boat landed in Aceh, Indonesia. Shortly before they came ashore, Hamid’s father died, leaving him 14-years-old at the time without anyone to look after him. He later embarked on a perilous boat journey to join his relatives in Malaysia. He said:

“When my father died on the boat, I felt so sad and I cried a lot. After I reached Indonesia I missed him so much, I cried every day for three months. When all the people from our boat came to Malaysia, I decided to go with them. When we arrived in Malaysian waters, I was arrested by police. The police detained me and the other Rohingya people. I worried for my security… I was afraid of being imprisoned for a long time. After two weeks, the police handed us over to UNHCR [The U.N Refugee Agency].”

Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya people as citizens, which complicates their asylum claims abroad and leaves children vulnerable to various forms of abuse in all of the four countries, including:

  • Statelessness and lack of legal status: While Myanmar denies citizenship to the Rohingya population as a whole, none of the other four countries in practice grant citizenship to Rohingya refugee children born on their shores — nor are they officially recognized as refugees. This exposes them to crackdowns, deportations and arbitrary detention and means they are mostly unable to access healthcare and other basic services.
  • Difficulties accessing education, either because of explicitly discriminatory rules which exclude them from school, or because policies that should enable them to go to school are not enforced. In Thailand, for example, all children have the right to basic education regardless of their legal status, but this is patchily enforced and Rohingya children continue to slip through the net.
  • Child marriage and early pregnancy: Financial pressures and cultural attitudes about girls’ education mean Rohingya adolescent girls are even less likely to go to school, and more likely to be married off early.
  • Arrest and detention, and confinement in immigration detention centers and refugee camps.
  • Anti-Rohingya sentiment and discrimination, sometimes circulated online and in media by state officials, which threatens children’s safety.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation for Rohingya refugees even more challenging, as governments tighten movement restrictions and close national borders, making migration journeys that are already perilous even more so. Authorities in several countries have used the pandemic as a pretext for pushing back boats carrying refugees, arresting and detaining undocumented migrants, and imposing restrictions on aid.

As economies have slowed down and employment opportunities have dried up, families have struggled to support themselves, leaving Rohingya children at increased risk of exploitation, child labor and trafficking.

The situation in Myanmar has also become increasingly unstable since the military coup on 1 February, following which thousands of people have been arrested and hundreds killed, making the prospect of safe return for the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh increasingly remote.

“With the magnitude of atrocities they have faced, Rohingya children are among the most persecuted in the world — failed by both their own countries and those they have fled to. Unjustly denied citizenship in Myanmar, they face discrimination and exclusion wherever they go. They are denied their most basic rights — the chance to go to school, to feel safe in their own homes and to live free from discrimination and prejudice.

“The root causes of this crisis lie in Myanmar, where decades-long segregation and violence must end. But governments in the region also have the power and the responsibility to guarantee the rights, safety, dignity, and humanity of Rohingya living within their borders, and to ensure that they are able to survive and thrive as a community.

“The need to ensure that Rohingya are safe, respected, and protected is as pressing as ever. This begins with granting them citizenship in Myanmar, but it also means ensuring their rights as refugees are respected in other countries, including children’s right to an education. Without this, a generation of Rohingya children will be unable to improve their lives or contribute to the countries they live in.”

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts



CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Vincent Lyn

CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)