Unicef says urban children in developing world need urgent attention


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The Independent Online

On another beach in a different world, Chinasa Paul would be sipping a soft drink bought by his parents. But if the 15-year-old eats today in Lagos, it will be thanks to tips he receives for lugging crates of drinks up and down Kuramo Beach.

Unicef will today call for an urgent shift in focus by policy makers neglectful of the needs of millions of children like Chinasa whose number is set to increase as the growth of cities in the developing world becomes one of the pressing issues of our time.

In its latest State of the World's Children report - the most comprehensive annual analysis of world development data - Unicef says urban children living precariously are being ignored in benchmark indicies like the Millennium Development Goals because they do not attend school or live in households that are surveyed.

Kuramo Beach is a sandy expanse beneath the hotels and high rises of Nigeria's white-collar business hub, Victoria Island. The umbrellas are faded. Sex and drugs are as readily available as pony rides. The swimmers are the rag-tag population that lives in shacks behind the beach bars - street children, prostitutes and hustlers known as ''area boys'' - washing off the sins of the night before.

Chinasa emerges from behind a beach bar. Street children like him stand out; facially, they often look old beyond their years but their bodies seem younger, possibly due to stunted growth. Chinasa is small for his 15 years. ''Here, we feel better than at home,'' he asserts.

It is the third time that charity workers from Child-to-Child Network, have found him sleeping rough. An orphan from Ebonyi State, 500kms away, he listened to his own dreams only to find himself exploited by others. ''I want to become a professional footballer,'' he says. ''What we do here is carry drinks  from the gate to the other end of the beach. In a morning, I get 200 Naira (80p) for doing that, then I buy food and we play football.''

Working with limited means, Child-to-Child Network attempts with funding from Unicef to stop the many gaps left open by Lagos State's overstretched social services. Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, is often said to be the world's fifth largest city. But no one really knows. Built on swamps and reclaimed lagoons, the city is so big that its skyscrapers, villas, one-room dwellings and shacks now fill almost all of Lagos State, the larger administrative entity. The population estimate ranges from 9 to 20 million and birth registration is haphazard, making it virtually impossible to chart social and health needs.

The first time the charity's workers picked up Chinasa, two years ago, they gave him counselling, hot meals, games and an opportunity to wash at a reception centre. Then they returned him to the uncle in Lagos who had taken him in after his parents' deaths. He ran away again and they placed him in a children’s home but he was insulted by a staff member and ran away. The charity then arranged for him to stay with another uncle in Eastern Nigeria. ''People in that place, they talk to me anyhow and beat me anyhow (sic). That is why I came back here,'' said Chinasa.

Many of the Kuramo Beach children and teenagers venture out in the day, to beg or hawk at traffic lights or offer their services as porters. Other street children in Lagos never come to the beach, choosing instead to work as conductors aboard the city's distinctive yellow minibuses. One 12-year-old boy, Shegun, said he earnt up to 1,500 Naira a day (£6.30) as a conductor but was regularly robbed and beaten up by ''area boys'' - youthful Fagins who leave him with just enough to buy food. Shegun said he slept under a bridge, with an old curtain for a blanket.

The UN estimates that by the middle of this century, 70 per cent of the world's population will live in cities. Child-to-Child Network co-ordinator Ngozi Ekwerike-Okoro said half the population of Lagos is estimated to be under the age of 18. She has no idea how many children live on the streets but in her 10 years with the charity she has never seen as many as now.

''More and more children are running away. Many come from broken homes, which makes them vulnerable to traffickers who recruit them in their villages and sell them to area boys to be trained as pickpockets. In Nigeria we do not do our divorces properly. Couples split up and husband and wife go their separate ways, leaving children with grandparents who cannot cope and may become abusive. At that point the child just decides to leave,'' said Mrs Ekwerike-Okoro who is also co-ordinator of the Lagos State child-protection network.

She said economic pressures often leave children vulnerable, even when parents remain together. ''This is Lagos. Life is tough. Parents are out hustling from early in the morning until late at night. From an early age, children have to look after themselves - feed themselves, go to school, and of course they are open to many influences.''

Damilola Onalaja was 10 when his mother died and his father started beating him. One day, when he had been given a little money to spend, he stayed out too long. ''It was in the middle of the night and I was afraid of what would happen if I went back. So I never went back,'' he said.

Damilola spent 18 months on the streets of Lagos, begging and working as a conductor. Eventually he heard of a place where he could go to sleep for a few hours and wash - a Child-to-Child Network reception centre. After couselling and discussions with his father, the charity decided to place him in a children's home, whose matron he calls ''mummy''. Now aged 15 and still living at the home, Damilola has been helped to find work as an apprentice printer. ''Mummy asked if I wanted to go back to my father but I said no. Now he comes and visits me and our relationship is OK,'' he said.

 Sara Beysolow-Nyanti, head of Unicef's Lagos office, said tracing lost children in Lagos and planning for their needs is a gigantic task. ''Census and planning data are missing and the population is moving all the time. In Lagos, the number of people on paper and the number of people in the streets is not the same. You have thousands of children who are not documented and so, officially, do not exist.''

Damilola supports efforts by Child-to-Child Network to teach other children their rights. He occasionally returns to Kuramo Beach - a place that ''doesn't feel fine'' because ''it is so bad for you''. But there is little he can say to Chinasa, content with carrying crates of drinks down the beach, and cynical beyond his years. ''How we live here is good for us,'' says Chinasa. ''I am enjoying it here.''