This article reflects on my investigation of children living and working in the streets in Bangkok, published in a series “Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s Invisible Children Exploited For Profit” which was recognized by the SOPA Awards 2015 for Excellence in Feature Writing.
You swallow your guilt and pretend like you don’t see the dirt streaked children begging on the sidewalk. Or, pull change from your pocket and plunk it into their cups smiling back at their grateful eyes, as you walk away awash with a sense of self satisfaction. This is the typical confrontation of individual compassion pressing up against a systematic problem. Well-meaning, charity-oriented Western religious credo says we should give to those less fortunate than ourselves, but fails to recognize feeding dependence pastes a bandaid on flawed social structures. That is charity in a nutshell: papering over chronic social issues while root causes expand beneath the surface, unseen. In the case of child beggars, an act of kindness unwittingly fuels an impoverished underworld that thrives off child labour, slashing their futures.
We rarely probe the surface of our physical environment. In Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand and Cambodia — children selling flowers at traffic lights or sitting beside adults on corners with a cup full of change are as commonplace as food stalls. How many times do we hurry by them, or look away from the car window, as if they are part of the scenery in our urban landscape? Everyone scurries by, on the way to work, a dinner we are 15 minutes late for, a long-awaited coffee with a friend we have lost touch with, a yoga class. People might feel a twinge of guilt or sadness, but then suddenly their phone is ringing or they’ve spotted a much sought-after taxi to hail. Nothing is questioned, probed, investigated. A small face in the street is taken at face value: “Poverty. [End of story].” But after years of turning over rocks as a journalist, as soon as someone whittles an issue down to poverty, I automatically suspect they have jumped at a simple word that has been used for decades to hide a multitude of sins.
Of course everyone should question inequality. But no one has time. I am lucky that my work is to dig beneath the first layer of a situation, to seek its heart, to scrutinize and contextualize and expose the multiple truths, while shining light on voices not frequently heard in mainstream societal discourse — burdens heaped on the marginalized by policies (or lack thereof) which lead to their daily downfalls. When I was researching for “Hidden in Plain Sight: Bangkok’s Invisible Children Exploited for Profit”, I was shocked to learn about the all-too-frequent collusion of relatives in a market, dissolving a child’s future by crassly amputating what is often the only opportunity they will ever have to dredge themselves from a life of constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Education is one of the only paths of escape — in Thailand it is also one of the few universal social goods offered. After the age of 12, when children are no longer considered profitable on the streets, they lose their appeal to the adults who exploit them. But by that age, they are too often accustomed to ways of the streets, or too ashamed to study with others half their age, according to Friends International, a social enterprise network launched in 1994 to unshackle children tied to the begging profession.
As I scoured the streets with Friends International, accompanying the social workers on a nighttime mission to identify at-risk children and intervene, a kindly looking grandmother with a toddler pleaded with me for money for food. Meanwhile the social worker whispered in my left ear the octogenarian was a chronic gambler from the Cambodian border who repeatedly abducted her three grandchildren from their village, and primary school, to beg for money that would be thrown away in grimy Poi Pet casinos.
Later, while investigating a second overlapping issue (“Escaping abuse for torments of the street, Bangkok’s homeless youth can’t get a break”), I visited Childline Foundation’s youth centre, named The Hub, a safehouse nestled in a slum near the train station — the last stop, where destitute runaways disembark. Navigating the neighbourhood where sex workers loiter on streets and gangs of punked out teens huff glue canisters made me nervous, but upon stepping into The Hub, all apprehension dissipated. It is a rare offering of safety in hostile territory, a place where the kids can store their belongings in a locker, have a shower, sleep without fear, and attend classes. Youths leave their weapons at the door.
In the interviews the street teens told me how their alcoholic fathers terrorized them into panic-stricken sleepless nights, how the chronic battering and bruises that plagued their lives make the streets safer than home. They find security in groups, one stays on guard at night with a switchblade to ward off threats, and somehow they find a way to buy food everyday — loading goods on trollies in menial labour jobs or selling their bodies. They were just kids with a keen sense of survival, and as the social workers at the centre said, they were kids subjected to so many atrocities at home that life on the street paled in comparison. Sometimes the things that shock us are only the tip of the iceberg.
What these youths represent are people who have have been failed many times. First by their families, then by the absence of an adequate child welfare system. Without a home, how can they attend school? Like their younger begging counterparts, the void left by the dysfunctional adults in their life fractures their future. It isn’t just poverty. Any parent or adult that takes their child out of school and puts them in the streets, does so for a reason. And that reason is that there is profit to made. Of course they are poor, of course the extra income helps them to eat. But if it wasn’t profitable, that child wouldn’t be on the streets, exposed everyday to a seedy nightlife, racing traffic and human predators.
Systemic problems need systemic remedies, but our role is important too. While Friends International, plays a vital role creating alternative livelihoods for families, parents will be reluctant to do so unless the cash flow a child earns from begging dries up. While The Hub can offer temporary respite from street life and basic technical training, if no one hires them, they will always live as drifters. Even the picture painted by the articles — about the daily experiences of children robbed of protection by the broken adults in their midst — is just a small piece of the puzzle.
But at least I hope it exposed an angle of the world not often seen, and will make us think before rummaging in our pockets for coins the next time we see a child beggar. I hope it will contribute to the slow chipping away of a subconscious acceptance of poverty as part of life. Poverty does not have to exist. It is created and endorsed by individual actions and state policies. It is systemic, multifaceted, different in each case yet perpetuated through generations in a cycle of strangled opportunities. Whatever the case, poverty is never simple, and neither will be the solution.