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Helping children living and working on the streets in Thailand

By Nattha Keenapan

UNICEF’s flagship report, ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’, was launched on 28 February, focusing attention on children in urban areas. One billion children live in urban areas, a number that is growing rapidly. Yet disparities within cities reveal that many lack access to schools, health care and sanitation, despite living alongside these services. This story is part of a series highlighting the needs of these children.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, 7 March 2012 – Poon* left home more than a year ago, escaping an abusive mother. She was an alcoholic, he said, and he thought life on the streets of Chiang Mai would be preferable to her regular beatings.

VIDEO: UNICEF reports on a programme helping children living and working on the streets of Thailand.  Watch in RealPlayer


But Poon, now 10, quickly found himself sleeping on a filthy sidewalk in the city’s red light district, a place that offered no protection from chilly night winds, mosquitoes, stray dogs or drunken adults.

He spent his days in Internet cafes and convenience stores, and at night, he worked in the sex trade, pimped to locals and tourists by the older boys he met on the streets.

“I wanted to be a doctor, but not anymore,” he said, gazing at the floor.  “I was kicked out of school…but I want to go back to study.” 

Life on the streets

Around the world, tens of millions of children are believed to be living and working on the streets in urban areas. And with growing migration and urbanization, these numbers are rising.

Poon is among tens of thousands of children living or working on the streets of Thailand due to poverty or violence. Most are in major cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Phuket.

© UNICEF Thailand/2012
Children study at a Children Development Foundation (VCDF) drop-in centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“Many of the children living on the streets of Chiang Mai come from families that are either too poor, or for various other reasons, simply unable to care for them,” said Anuchon Huansong, a coordinator at the Volunteer for Children Development Foundation (VCDF), an NGO and UNICEF partner for three years. Others “are undocumented ethnic minority children who have migrated to Chiang Mai with their families to beg or sell flowers.”

“Children who live or work on the streets are at great risk of violence, abuse, exploitation, drugs and HIV,” said Sirirath Chunnasart, a UNICEF Child Protection Officer. “They often have little or no access to health, education or other social services.”

HIV infection among these children is also a serious concern.

“Most of the children know nothing about HIV/AIDS,” said Pot Rungrojkulporn, an outreach worker for VCDF. “Many children are lured into sex trade by their older friends.”

Learning to protect themselves

VCDF is working to teach these children how to protect themselves from a variety of dangers, including HIV. VCDF operates a drop-in centre, a safe place where children can take part in recreational activities, learn to read and write, learn about children’s rights, and acquire basic income-generating skills. Around 20 children come to the drop-in centre each day, and some stay overnight.

VCDF is also training older children to become youth leaders.

“Some of the older children living on the street are also helping us keep an eye on the younger children, and trying to protect them from… men who would abuse them,” said Mr. Huansong. “For example, if they see a new child living on the streets, they will inform us or bring the child to the drop-in centre.”

Poon has since left the street and the sex trade. He has been living at the drop-in centre for several months, and, with help from VCDF, he will be going back to school in May.

© UNICEF Thailand/2012
Volunteers for Children Development Foundation (VCDF) operates a drop-in centre, a safe place where children can take part in recreational activities, learn to read and write, and learn about their rights.

Working with families

Increased awareness of children’s rights – to protection, to education, to a family environment – can prevent them from being forced onto the streets in the first place.

“Some parents have started sending their children to schools instead of bringing them to beg or sell things on the streets,” Mr. Huansong said.

But getting children off the street is much more challenging. While drop-in centres, outreach services, vocational training and care institutions exist in most major cities, they do not address the root causes forcing children onto the street – poverty or problems in the home.

“We have to work with their families and solve the problems at home, otherwise these children will continue to live on the streets,” Ms. Chunnasart said. “Each family and each child has different problems and requires different solutions.”

But family-based approaches are not widely used in Thailand because there are not enough social workers to trace children’s families, design individual solutions or conduct follow-up visits.

“More and more children are leaving home, and the longer they live on the street the harder it is to get them back together with their families,” Ms. Chunnasart said. “We urgently need more trained social workers who can help reunite these children with their families, before it’s too late.”

*Name changed to protect child’s identity



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