Tent-based service hubs throw a lifeline to children living on the streets during COVID-19
Children who are left to fend for themselves find food, shelter, play and counselling in UNICEF pandemic emergency centres
Rafi had had enough. After yet another beating from his stepmother, he fled to his grandmother’s to be cared for. But when it became clear that she was struggling to feed them both, Rafi decided to leave his home in Barisal and hitch a ride on a steamboat all the way to Dhaka and the economic opportunities it represented.
Arriving alone in Bangladesh’s capital after a journey of 200 kilometres, Rafi’s biggest worry was where he was going to stay and what he was going to eat. “I had an umbrella and a mobile phone with me. I sold them and that’s how I managed to eat. Someone bought me shoes since I didn’t have any,” he said.
The 11-year-old soon found work carrying people’s belongings in exchange for a few taka in Dhaka’s busy river port. Since the pandemic, he has started selling face masks to some of the thousands of passengers that arrive and depart daily.
Trudging up and down the port hawking his wares for more than 12 hours every day earns Rafi an income of barely $2 a day.
But during the lockdown in 2020, when travel was restricted in the country and the boat terminal closed for around two months, Rafi earned nothing. He survived on food given by NGOs to children living on the streets, until he came across one of the huge tents which serves as a UNICEF supported Child Protection Services Hub.
A lifeline for vulnerable children
UNICEF is providing support to 12 such hubs across Bangladesh. The hubs provide children with nutritious meals and a safe space to rest, take a shower, learn and play with their peers.
Three emergency hubs are based in Dhaka, in tents close to the children they serve. Each hub welcomes up to 40 children every day and provides safe overnight accommodation for between 15 and 20 children every night.
Counselling is also offered, which is vital for children like Rafi, who come from broken homes or are estranged from family. Social workers work to try to resolve problems with families with the aim of eventually reintegrating children back into their families.
“These tent-based service hubs offer a lifeline to hundreds of the most vulnerable children, including those who find themselves sleeping rough or driven deeper into poverty by the pandemic,” said Natalie McCauley, UNICEF Bangladesh’s Chief of Child Protection.
Rafi’s social worker has noticed a big change since he started coming to the hub. No longer sad and despondent, Rafi is even considering going back to Barisal to reunite with his beloved grandmother.
Imran Hossain is another child who has received help from a UNICEF Child Protection Services Hub.
As the oldest son in the family, 11-year-old Imran has always felt duty bound to help his parents and younger brothers living in the densely populated Wasa Colony in Sayedabad, Dhaka. Before the pandemic they often survived on just a few dollars a day, which Imran’s mother earned as a domestic worker and his father earned as a rickshaw puller. Imran also contributed his share working at a paper recycling shop after school.
But when the pandemic struck, there was no income to be had.
“I used to study in a school before the lockdown. When the lockdown started, my family had to leave for the village. My father was also sick. So, I had to start working again to support my family,” Imran said.
Pandemic sends families into crisis
Initially, Imran moved back with his family to their village in Netrokona, about 140 kilometres north of Dhaka, but he returned to the capital when it became clear that the family could not earn a living there either.
Luckily, he was able to enrol in one of UNICEF’s Emergency Child Protection Services Hubs. Besides food and accommodation, Imran was also able to access health care, psychosocial counselling, life skills sessions and other activities to benefit his well-being.
After two months of living alone in Dhaka, he was yearning to see his parents again and was thrilled when a social worker was eventually able to arrange a visit.
After the lockdown ended, Imran and his family moved back to Wasa Colony. Even though Imran no longer attends the hub, a social worker continues to keep an eye on his situation.
“I want to keep my parents happy when I grow up. If I can study, I will get a better job and take care of my parents,” Imran said.
UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the European Union for their generous contribution to the UNICEF Bangladesh Child Protection Programmme, which aims to support children and adolescents, including those living on the streets and in disadvantaged areas.