“They took us at night, so we didn’t know where we were being taken,” 11-year-old Jonathan (not his real name) told me.
He was one of over 600 children and young adults that police indiscriminately rounded up around Kampala on July 23 and 24 as part of a city-wide exercise by local authorities and the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development to remove homeless children from the streets and resettle them.
The roundups are ostensibly meant to help the children but authorities carried them out without respect for basic rights. Three witnesses told Human Rights Watch that policemen used sticks and batons to beat children as they forced them into vehicles.
“It was violent. Even the way they were handled. They grabbed them. And they were shouting at them: ‘Why are you on the street?’” said Martin Baliko, who runs Amari Uganda, a Kampala based organization that rehabilitates street-children. A newspaper also ran a photograph of a policeman and a member of a the Local Defence Unit, a paramilitary group, dragging a child away during the operation.
Police transferred the children and young adults they arrested to youth rehabilitation centers where they are being held before they are resettled. An official at Kampiringisa National Rehabilitation Centre told me that at least 73 people were released last week because they were adults or children who live with their parents.
Violent and arbitrary roundups of street children by police in Kampala are not new. In 2014, Human Rights Watch found that police and other officials beat, extorted money from, and arbitrarily detained street children after similar roundups.
Both Ugandan and international law provide a strong framework banning abuse and harassment that should protect children’s rights. If police arrest children, Uganda’s Children’s Act says they should immediately take them to court. If this is not possible and if charges are not serious, they should release them on police bond. This does not seem to be happening in these cases.
Groups working to help street children fear that more roundups are imminent, particularly as parliament approved a supplementary budget of 3.4 million Ugandan Shilling (US$918, 850) in May specifically for removal operations, street surveillance, and various rehabilitation activities.
If the government continues with its plans to remove children from the street, it should do so only in a manner that respects children’s rights, ensuring that they can access appropriate services, and are treated with dignity.