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Children on the streets of Somalia

The situation for those living in Mogadishu may be improving as the new Somali government brings greater stability, but life is still bleak for the many orphans surviving as best they can in the war-torn capital.

Numbers are hard to determine. The UN’s child agency, UNICEF, estimated there were at least 5,000 children living on the streets of Mogadishu in 2008. But after the serious famine of 2011, which drove many rural dwellers into the city, the number of orphaned children on the streets of the capital is now higher than 11,000, according to local charities.

The youngest children simply beg, choosing to sit outside mosques or cafes where adults gather to pray and socialise. Older children usually find some kind of employment, such as shoe-shining. The Guardian’s reporter in Mogadishu came across one ten year-old who had been a shoe shiner for three years. The boy often sets up with his sponge, brush and shoe polish outside the mosque, particularly after midday prayers when he can earn the most money. But he has to compete with at least 20 other boys who come to the mosque for exactly the same reason. For each pair of shoes cleaned, these boys earn around 0.05-10 dollars.

Local charities say the number of street children in Mogadishu is likely to rise even higher, as child soldiers are released and begin to integrate into the community. With no state-run shelters or centres, there’s nowhere else for many children without family to go.

Certain international development charities, such as SOS Children’s Villages, are already active in Mogadishu, helping to provide support for abandoned or orphaned children. And smaller non-governmental organisations are also working in the capital to set up shelters for homeless children.

But the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, especially since many street children need more than just a roof over their heads. During their years of scavenging, when persistent hunger is an ongoing battle, many have resorted to drug or substance abuse in order to get by. This in turn leads children to develop criminal habits and to exhibit drug-related behaviour which requires expert help. This is why, even when offered shelter, many children end up back on the streets.

The Somali government acknowledges the extent of the problem. Speaking to The Guardian, the director general at the Ministry of Human Development and Public Services says the number of children on Mogadishu’s streets is “unacceptable” and adds that the issue is “top of our action plan for this year”. Apart from wanting to prioritise child welfare issues, officials know that every child left on the streets is a potential target for militia gangs and unless youngsters aren’t integrated into society, Somalia will face a new generation of fighters and criminals.

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