Yes. It was frightening. Walking along a quiet path between two blocks of flats in the Docklands area of London, a young boy, aged about 14 and wearing a grey hooded jacket, hurtled past me on his bicycle. That was not the problem: an ideal slope offered too much of a temptation to any youngster with a set of wheels and a willingness to freewheel to wherever they might eventually come to rest. The difficulty lay in the two big men who appeared as though from nowhere and blocked the cyclist’s path. Looking scared, the boy pulled to a halt, allowing his bike to clatter to the ground.
Then things began to resemble a film set as the two men grabbed the youth’s arms and frogmarched him to a nearby wall. Almost in slow motion, one retrieved the bicycle whilst the other held the boy. Whatever inaudible words passed between them had a result: he removed his jacket and handed it over to the bigger of the pair, who began to search the pockets and lining.
Unsure of what I was witnessing and without a mobile phone with which to dial 999 if necessary, I stood at a safe distance, hoping that the presence of an adult onlooker might prevent, or at least reduce, any onset of violence.
As it happened, the two men were plain clothes police officers who knew the boy and suspected him of carrying drugs or stolen goods. They were thorough but respectful. He would come to no harm. For his part, it was not the child’s first encounter with the law and would probably not be his last. He was scared: I was frightened and therein lay the difference. He knew what was taking place whereas, as an innocent bystander, I did not.
Yet what a difference between the manner in which the Docklands police dealt with a young offender and their counterparts in Recife, Brazil! In 2009, a social worker in the city described as ‘Brazil’s murder capital’ explained, “They believe they've got to clean up what they see as a social problem by killing street kids. Over the years I have personally known 600 street kids killed on the streets – 60 per cent of them have been killed by these organised death squads.”
A senior police officer added, “It might be hard for them to kill at first but then they get used to it and it becomes an avalanche," he said. "They have no human feeling left.” His colleague justified the actions of the police. “It's right to take a human life in these cases because it takes so long for the legal processes here to go through and the drug trafficker or the killer that we might catch as police officers can be released the next day and go back on the streets and kill and traffic drugs again so it's much better for us to take care of these scumbag crooks, to kill them and solve the problem like that.”
A 2003 UNICEF report estimated that there are more than 100 million street children around the world and that the number was steadily increasing. An American Christian organisation, International Street Kids, estimated that, by the end of 2012, this number had quadrupled. The same organisation highlights the fact that Brazil alone has 13 million abandoned children fending for themselves, most of them resorting to crime in order to survive.
Britain does not have the same problem – or does it? The Children’s Society, in 2009, found that ‘100,000 young people run away in the UK each year’. Of these youngsters, one-sixth are likely to sleep rough. The same report stated that ‘There are only 10 registered refuge bed spaces for young runaways in the UK’. No doubt someone sees these teenagers, whose average age is 14 at their first attempt to run away, but most of us are oblivious to their existence, never mind their difficulties and their hideouts. Presumably they are frequently involved in crime as happens with so many homeless youngsters across the world. Yet here, in Britain, they are largely invisible. Thankfully, part of the reason is probably that, compared to many other countries, their numbers are fewer.
During my 12 years in Zambia, the Street Kids were highly visible. They formed small communities around shopping centres and major roads, where they could beg for money and food. Many had a ‘protector’, an older adolescent who creamed off a proportion of any earnings and who was not concerned whether or not his underlings would eat. As with children anywhere, they were gregarious, friendly and communicative. They needed to be loved. The Street Kids were not always looking for handouts (although they often were!) and would readily make themselves conspicuous in spite of heavy traffic, simply to smile and wave. They quickly recognised the cars of those who would treat them as human beings and break away from whatever they happened to be doing, just in order to say hello. Yet these same children lived in drains and culverts, vacant buildings and anywhere that provided some form of roof over their heads. The staff of a local supermarket knew that when they poured out-of-date cooking oil down the sink, crowds of bottle-carrying children waited outside, underneath the outlet pipe, to catch and re-sell that same cooking oil to the desperately poor people in the local shanty compounds.
Unlike the children in Brazil, Zambia’s street children, in one sense, do not fear the police, who are often almost as hungry and in need in spite of earning some sort of a salary. For many, there are centres where they can find a regular meal and could have a home and an education if they could submit to returning to a life with structure and discipline.
What was the story of the young boy in the Docklands when he was caught by the plain clothed policemen? Who knows? He had a bike. He was well dressed. Someone somewhere had money and cared for him. His life might be hard, but it is probably not hopeless.
For their part, the policemen did not carry weapons with the intention of using them on the boy, who might accompany them to the nearest police station, but he would emerge alive, possibly chastened and with a referral to a social worker. He did not fear for his life even if he was scared when caught. The police officers treated the youngster with respect, picking up his fallen bike and propping it safely against a nearby wall. For my part, although I initially stayed at a safe distance, I was not at risk and could have found help had it been needed.
When Pope Francis speaks of helping the poor and vulnerable, he remembers from firsthand experience, more than 5,000 homeless youngsters living in the streets of Buenos Aires. 75 per cent are children aged 6 – 12 and, of these, 70 per cent survive on the gleanings of rubbish dumps and casual work. These are the children who touched his heart. The boy in the Docklands was caught in the act of crime. The children of Buenos Aires are caught in the struggle for survival.