Street children as young as 5 are being rounded up in the streets of Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, ahead of the five-day visit of Pope Francis to the country. The children are being herded into the city's notorious detention centers under appalling conditions as part of effort to "clean up" the streets ahead of the pontiff's arrival on January 15.
Pope Francis begins a five-day visit to the predominantly Catholic country this week. He is expected to conduct an open air mass in Manila city's Rizal Park. About six million people are expected to attend the mass.
The Daily Mail reports that hundreds of abandoned children and street beggars as young as 5 are being picked up from the streets by police and city officials, handcuffed, and thrown into cages at detentions centers to hide the country's shame of poverty and homelessness from the global TV audience and the august visitor.
Top officials have admitted to local media reporters that the children are being rounded up in areas where the pope will be visiting, to sanitize the streets and ensure that they do not cause any distraction during the pope's visit.
But children and human rights activists are protesting the action, saying that the children are being kept in inhumane conditions that constitute a gross violation of their human and child rights.
Disturbing reports of child abuse are coming from charities and human rights activists on the ground. The Daily Mail reports that its investigation at one of the city's 17 detention centers, the Reception and Action Center (RAC), uncovered cases of shocking abuse that violate the country's child protection laws.
Children are being locked up in filthy detention centers, where they are forced to sleep on cold concrete floors and chained to pillars if they try to escape. They are being starved as well as physically and sexually abused by older children and adult prisoners.
The Nobel Peace Prize-nominated Father Shay Cullen, 71, who is involved in charity work to rescue children from the detention centers, lamented the condition under which children "rescued" from the streets are being kept at the RAC, describing it as a "shame on the nation."
Father Cullen described the condition in which he found 7-year-old Mak Mak, one of the children he rescued from the RAC and moved to a children's home where he is receiving better care, as "completely beneath human dignity."
"This boy is only about seven years old and he is behind bars. This is completely beneath human dignity and the rights of all the children here are being violated. They have no basic rights. There is no education. There is no entertainment. There is no proper human development. There is nowhere to eat and they sleep on a concrete floor. There is no proper judicial process. These kids are totally without protection. They have no legal representation. They are just put in jail and left to fend for themselves."
Father Cullen expressed sadness that it was unlikely that Pope Francis, known for his personal ministry to the poor, would have the opportunity to visit the detention centers.
"Sadly, there is no way the Pope will be visiting these detention centers in Manila. They are a shame on the nation. Officials here would be horrified at the prospect of the Pope seeing children treated in this way."
The shocking conditions at the notorious detention centers became a subject of public controversy last year, after the photo of a severely emaciated 11-year-old, an inmate at the RAC, surfaced in the international media. But the controversy generated by the case has done little to change public policy.
Government officials have defended the action with Rosalinda Orobia, head of the Social Welfare Department, arguing that the round up was necessary to protect Pope Francis from being targeted by gangs of underage street beggars.
Orobia reportedly told the Manila Standard that the government was trying to stop the gangs taking advantage of the pope, who is known to care about the poor.
But the Manila Standard criticized Orobia's statement, pointing out that the government appeared to be more concerned about presenting a cosmetically sanitized face of Manila to the pope than considering ways to remedy the condition of the poor street children.
Orobia's statement illustrates the lack of concern and empathy among relatively privileged members of society, who tend to blame the poor for their condition and criminalize the social vices associated with urban poverty. We see the culture of blaming the poor for their condition even in the world's richest superpower country, in which society's only answer to the problem of the inner city poor is policing, policing, and more policing.
Some social and political scientists have argued that the condition of the poor persists mostly because the privileged classes prefer to believe that the poor are locked in the vicious cycle of poverty because they are too lazy and too morally decrepit to try to do anything to improve their own condition.
Pundits have argued that the poor languish in poverty mostly because the politically influential economic middle and upper classes, focused on guarding their limited economic privileges, see the poor as a burden and resist efforts to invest in social programs that inevitably shift resources from them to the poor. And because politicians are generally anxious to curry the favor of the politically active and influential middle and upper middle classes, they are not motivated to do anything to help the poor. Instead, they ascribe the condition of the urban poor to the "tailspin of culture in our inner cities."
The apathy of the wealthier classes, committed to defending their social and economic privileges, explains why despite public knowledge about appalling conditions in the detention centers of Manila, nothing has been done.
This is not the first time that the authorities in Manila have rounded up street children ahead of the visit of important personalities. Children were similarly rounded up ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to the country in April last year.
It remains to be seen whether the limited media attention to the plight of poor street children in the Philippines will catch Pope Francis's attention. It is clear, however, that the authorities in the Philippines are determined to prevent him from noticing.