(New York) - Government roundup campaigns to clear Hanoi’s streets of “wanderers” and “vagrants” are landing street children in detention centers, where some are beaten and subject to other forms of abuse, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that street children are particularly vulnerable to arrest now, as the Vietnamese government attempts to present its best face for this week’s meetings in Hanoi of world leaders, including US President George Bush, for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
“Vietnamese authorities need to protect street children from abuse, not condemn them to further harm by throwing them into detention centers,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Visiting world leaders should press Vietnam to uphold basic rights and freedoms.”
Vietnam should abide by its commitments to protect children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, especially children deemed especially vulnerable to abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Vietnam was the first country in Asia and the second in the world to ratify the treaty.
The 77-page report, “Children of the Dust: Abuse of Hanoi Street Children in Detention,” documents cases of serious violations of the rights of street children in Hanoi. Police routinely round up street children in arbitrary sweeps and deposit them at state “rehabilitation” centers – euphemistically called “Social Protection Centers” – where they are detained for periods ranging from two weeks to as much as six months.
Drawing on testimonies from street children interviewed over the past three years, Human Rights Watch detailed the particularly harsh treatment at one of the rehabilitation centers, Dong Dau Social Protection Center. Children there are locked up in filthy, overcrowded cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes together with adults, with only a bucket for excrement. The lights remain on night and day. They are released for two half-hour periods per day to wash and to eat. They are offered no rehabilitation, no educational and recreational activities, and no medical or psychological treatment. Their families are often not notified about where they are.
Even more disturbing are reports that children at Dong Dau are subject to routine beatings, verbal abuse and mistreatment by staff.
“Staff members in the so-called rehabilitation center have slapped and punched children, and beat them with rubber truncheons,” said Richardson. “Children report being placed in isolation, deprived of food and medical treatment, and denied family contact. This violates both Vietnamese and international law.”
After being beaten, the children rarely receive medical treatment for their injuries, nor are staff persons who carry out the beatings disciplined.
“Rather than serving as a rehabilitation center, Dong Dau is a de facto jail,” said Richardson. “Upon release, the children return battered, bruised and even less well-equipped to survive on the streets of Hanoi.”
None of the children Human Rights Watch spoke to were provided any legal representation or told what, if any, charges were being brought against them; nor did their cases go before a court of law.
Officially, the government’s policy is to round up street children in order to reunite them with their families. In practice, staff members at Dong Dau rarely make an effort to link children with their families or even notify the families about their children’s whereabouts.
At the end of their detention, efforts are rarely made to take the children home or reunite them with their families. Instead, the children told Human Rights Watch that they are deposited at the gates of the center – more than 20 miles from Hanoi – and expected to find their way back. Most do not return to their homes in the countryside, but end up in Hanoi with no new alternatives.
Although Vietnamese law outlines policies and programs to assist street children – most of whom are poor children from the countryside who go to Hanoi to find work – Human Rights Watch found that government authorities are often doing the opposite of what is called for in Vietnamese and international law.
“On paper, Vietnam has good policies to protect street children,” said Richardson. “But the reality for Hanoi’s street children is not rehabilitation, but institutionalization and abuse, which leaves children in even worse shape.”
Human Rights Watch called for an independent audit of conditions and practices at Dong Dau and for development of a plan of action to halt abuses there. In addition, Human Rights Watch recommended that the Vietnamese government put in place systems to protect children from arbitrary arrest and detention and ensure that street children do not suffer abuse at the hands of government authorities. Centers for street children should meet international standards, promote rehabilitation and family reunification (when appropriate), and provide adequate education and health care.
Testimonies from the report:
“I didn't know how to queue when I first arrived. The guards came and hit me with a rubber club. They hit me everywhere ... more than 20 times, on the right side of my back, lower and upper arms. It still hurts. Then they sent me back to the room without food. It was too painful to eat anyway. My back and right shoulder were swollen. I had scratches all over my arms. ... I didn’t eat for two days – it was too painful to eat.”
– 17-year-old street child
“When I had to fill out the form, [the staff person] asked me how many times I had been there. I told him twice, but he thought I was lying. He thought I must have been there four times. I told him he was wrong, so he hit me. He used a rubber club to hit me all over my body. He hit me twice on the back and shoulder, and twice on the back of my thighs.”
– 15-year-old street child
“On the first day, eight people [were sent to Dong Dau] with me. We were all very sad. Some people cried all day, and they didn’t eat anything. When I was lining up for dinner, I didn’t feel like eating anything, so I was moving slowly. So were the others. The guards came and made us kneel down in the middle of the room. We weren’t allowed to eat anything. The first time we got to eat was the next day at 10 a.m.”
– 15-year-old shoe shiner
“There were windows, but they were shut ... tied with metallic string. Day and night was the same because the light was on all the time. There were some wooden surfaces to sleep on but there were not enough, so people who were there first got those. Others slept on the floor. We had just enough space to lie down. I couldn’t even turn my body. Staying there for one day is like staying there for one month. We just sat in the room. We couldn’t do anything.”
– 17-year-old street child, talking about his detention at Dong Dau when he was 16
“I was always depressed, sad, bored. Many nights, I was lying on my bed, thinking how it’s so unfair to be somewhere like this. I don’t deserve it. There shouldn’t be any violence in a Social Protection Center.”
– 15-year-old street child