In 1990, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam became the first country in Asia, and the second country in the world, to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since the early 1990s the government has taken positive steps to enact legislation and policies to protect the rights of children, especially those deemed vulnerable.
But for street children in Hanoi—and likely other major cities as well—Vietnam is falling far short of its obligations under Vietnamese and international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Between 2003 and 2006, Human Rights Watch received credible reports of serious abuses of street children in Hanoi. Primarily poor children from the countryside who go to Hanoi to find work, street children are routinely and arbitrarily rounded up by police in periodic sweeps. They are sent to two compulsory state “rehabilitation” centers on the outskirts of town, Dong Dau and Ba Vi social protection centers, where they may be detained for periods ranging from two weeks to as much as six months.
Social Protection Centers (Trung Tam Bao Tro Xa Hoi in Vietnamese), also known as Social Charity Establishments, Social Support Centers, Social Relief Centers, or Transit Centers, are closed institutions for beggars, homeless adults and children, sex workers, drug addicts, orphans, disabled and elderly people without family support, and street children. In theory, the centers are operated and administered by the Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs (DOLISA) together with local People’s Committees. In fact, the Ministry of Public Security plays a significant role in their operation.
The centers operate as part of the Vietnamese administrative—rather than criminal justice—system. This means that, according to Vietnamese law, court orders are not required in order for children and others to be rounded up and detained at the centers, and the normal criminal law safeguards do not apply. Under Vietnam’s international legal obligations, however, the classification of the centers as administrative holding facilities rather than criminal detention centers does not alter the rights of the children not to be arbitrarily detained, to due process, and to appropriate conditions of detention.
The treatment of street children in detention, particularly at Dong Dau, is harsh. They are locked up for 20-three hours a day in filthy, overcrowded cells, 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 a day to wash and to eat. At Dong Dau they are offered no rehabilitation or educational and recreational activities, and no medical or psychological treatment.
Even more alarming are reports that children detained at Dong Dau are subject to routine beatings, verbal abuse, and mistreatment by staff or other detainees, sometimes with staff acquiescence. Children reported that Dong Dau staff members slap, punch, and beat children with rubber truncheons for violations of rules, which sometimes have not been clarified with the children. Children reported being beaten for benign behavior such as being slow to respond to questions or not knowing how to queue, as well as for attempting to escape. Afterwards, they rarely receive medical treatment for their injuries, nor are staff persons who carry out the beatings disciplined.
Rather than serving as rehabilitation center, Dong Dau is in fact a detention facility; upon release, many of the children are battered, bruised, and less equipped for basic survival.
While children interviewed by Human Rights Watch report that conditions at Ba Vi are slightly better than at Dong Dau—they say there are fewer beatings, they are given better food, and living conditions are cleaner and less crowded—questions remain as to whether it meets the standards set out in government policies or the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In this report, however, we focus largely on Dong Dau, where the bulk of our information is from.
Officially, the government’s policy is to round up street children for the purpose of reuniting them with their families. In practice, staff members at the state centers, particularly Dong Dau, rarely make an effort to link children with their families or even notify the families about their children’s whereabouts, nor are children detained at Dong Dau allowed to communicate with their families.
None of the children we spoke to were told the grounds on which they were being rounded up or what rights they had while in detention. They had no way to challenge their detention, and there is no practicable system of redress for abuses inflicted on them.
The children said that at the end of their detention no efforts were made to take them home or reunite them with their families. Instead, the children we talked with said they were deposited at the gates of the centers—which are more than 20 miles from Hanoi—and expected to find their way. Most did not go back to their homes in the countryside, but returned to Hanoi with no new alternatives.
Roundup campaigns directed by government authorities are often launched in advance of national holidays, international meetings, and prominent state visits in order to remove street children, beggars, and vagrants from the street and out of view of international visitors. One such crackdown on homeless adults and children in Hanoi took place in 2003 before the South East Asian (SEA) Games and another in October 2004 before the meeting of the Asia-Europe Summit Meeting (ASEM).
At this writing, there were reports that arrests of street children were intensifying in the lead up to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting of world leaders, scheduled for November 17-19, 2006, in Hanoi, to be attended by US President Bush.
The round-up campaigns in Hanoi have cleared some of the city’s high-profile districts of street people, including children who make their living on the street. Particularly since 2003, many street children, fearing arrest and detention, now work the streets in less prominent parts of Hanoi, where they solicit business from Vietnamese, rather than foreigners.
Sweeps of children from central areas of Hanoi have caused some observers— including tourists, journalists, official visitors, officials, and donors—to think the problem has disappeared and the numbers of street children are decreasing. However organizations working with street children say the problem remains serious but often goes undetected because of the street children’s “invisibility, mobility, and seasonality.”
“They are still here but much more difficult to find,” a social worker told us. “The problem has been pushed underground.”
For the full report, please click here.