Experts say bad parenting and the changing face of a modernizing society have created urban Vietnam's street children
Nguyen Khac Long, 12, now feels safe and secure at the Children's House in Ho Chi Minh City's District 8, where he can study and interact with his peers.
It is a far cry from two years ago.
Long was then begging on the city streets and was abused and beaten by his boss, who had hired him to beg, for a meager commission, in the northern Thanh Hoa Province after paying his father around VND800,000.
"He [the owner] told my dad that he would hire me to sell lottery tickets in HCMC. But I ended up begging there 13 hours per day," Long told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"My family was very poor and my parents and sister eke out a living on menial jobs," Long said.
Long's father brought him back to Thanh Hoa in 2007 but "sold" him again the same year to another boss who also promised to have Long sell lottery tickets in HCMC.
"I was forced to beg on the streets, again. The only slight difference is that I suffered from harsher abuse from the boss," Long said.
Long's story is an all too common one.
Hundreds of children like him roam the streets selling lottery tickets or shoe-shining to make money, vulnerable to both imminent and invisible risks.
While poverty has time and time again been blamed for the plight of many children of poor families, experts say a broader view needs to be adopted to pinpoint the root cause of the street child problem.
"Poverty is not the sole cause or reason for the existence of street children," said Margrit Schlosser, country representative at HCMC's Terre des hommes Foundation, which promotes children's rights.
"There are many poor rural families who would never send their children to the big cities on their own. There are many poor families in the cities who would never expose their children to the risk of being in the street," Schlosser told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"It is related to the disruption of families and communities, and the lack of parental responsibility," she said.
"It is definitely related to the socio-economic development of the country that has created considerable inequalities."
Michael Brosowski, country director of the Blue Dragon Children's Foundation acknowledged that the consequences of economic developments like rising landlessness played a role in creating street children.
The migration of droves of rural people to urban areas attributed to the rapid modernization and industrialization helped feed the street child problem, he said.
"One of the results of modernization is that those in 'modernized' or 'industrialized' areas suddenly have many new opportunities and sources of income that people in rural areas don't have," Brosowski said.
"Rural people see city people with their mobile phones, nice motorbikes, and new fashion - and, quite rightly, they want the same."
Family, not just poverty
While Dang Hoa Nam, vice head of the Child Rights Protection Department under the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs, agreed that the changing structure of Vietnamese society was part of the street child issue, he was harsher on the street children's parents.
"A majority of street children make money by doing different jobs. They have to fend for their parents who do not bother to work," Nam told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"The traditional family values have been compromised as many people have not born their parental responsibility and the kids on the contrary have to support their parents," Nam said.
Tran Thi Tuyet Mai, coordinator of the Thao Dan social support establishment, illustrated the point.
"When our people go to ask any child selling lottery tickets or shoe-shining near the Cau Muoi Market in District 4 or the backpacker area in District 1, the most common answer was that the kids there were financially supporting their parents who just stay idle at home or kill time gambling," Mai said.
"So it is the parents that should be blamed first for exploiting their children."
Experts on the one hand acknowledged governmental efforts to ensure basic child rights but on the other said there was still plenty of room left for improvement in this area.
"The basic rights of a child, besides access to education, must be to make sure that the child has the essential personal documents necessary to start a new life," said Le Thi Thu Thuy, director of the Thao Dan establishment.
"While the formalities to obtain a birth certificate for a street child have been relaxed as centers taking care of them are now eligible to carry out the procedures, getting an ID card in this regard has remained a cumbersome task," Thuy said.
The procedures require a family register for a street child to be granted the ID card, while many of them have no idea where their parents used to live, Thuy elaborated.
"This will be a big hurdle for the street children when they try to integrate into normal life," she said.
Thuy recalled the case of a former street boy she encountered in 1992. He had undergone vocational training that would enable him to fend for himself.
"But so far he has been unable to obtain his own ID card, which is really a big problem for him," Thuy said.
"We hope that agencies concerned would issue more specific guidance on this issue so that the basic rights of a street child could be guaranteed."
Nam of the Child Rights Protection Department said the Law on Protection, Care and Education for Children does not cover these issues.
"I think there should be more concrete and feasible regulations on this," Nam said.
SAFE AND SOUND
Ensuring a secure environment that street kids can be sent home is a crucial task, Margrit Schlosser of Terre des hommes Foundation said.
"We need to make sure that before they are sent back, the families are in the position to take them back and the social structures there know how to support them."
For Schlosser, it is also important to ensure that the child can attend school or that adolescents are trained for employment in their communities.
She said there were stories in which the children taken back to their communities returned to the cities ever before those who chaperoned them home.
While acknowledging that such stories might just be a joke, Schlosser suggested: "it implies something."