By Frank Eckardt
HO CHI MINH CITY — Nguyen Rithy Ti is one of a small but increasing number of street children here. He says he left his family two years ago after he had trouble getting along with the grandmother he was sent to live with when his parents divorced. His shorts and once white shirt are grimy and worn thin. He is a bald, wiry youth with a round face who insists he is 17 years old, but he looks 13.
Ti and his friends, members of a protective group of nine boys, live in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the business capital of Vietnam, which is still informally called Saigon. That's why Ti, the leader, calls his group "Saigon Kids".
The city is the centre of the economic transformation that began in Vietnam in the late 1980s, when the country's Communist rulers decided to increase reliance on free market economics. Although the change has brought prosperity to many in Vietnam, the free market is one reason that Ti is not with his family.
Schools have begun to charge parents small fees for building maintenance and even tuition, creating a burden for poor families. Fees have also been introduced in the health care system. And Vietnamese who used to receive food from cooperatives are now in greater need of cash, so parents often pull their children from school and put them to work.
Nghiem Tue, director of the Vietnamese government's Programs of Protection for Displaced Children, calls his charges one of the "negative phenomena" arising from the revival of the market. Other officials deny the connection, and social workers caution that it may be too soon to draw any definitive conclusions.
Talking to the youths themselves leaves less room for ambiguity. A 14-year-old named Tuan Anh, one of Ti's friends, says he left home because his mother wanted him to stay out of school and sell lottery tickets and newspapers. This wasn't the only reason he left the coastal city of Vung Tao for Saigon — he says his father had taken a mistress — but he "didn't like" being forced to work.
Ti says he never got much education, "because my family did not want to pay for my school".
Social workers have plenty of labels for children like Ti and Anh and the millions like them who populate the thoroughfares of cities throughout the world. One Vietnamese term is "unlucky children". UNICEF, the United Nations organisation, uses the appropriately bureaucratic "children in especially difficult circumstances".
Mostly they are called simply "street kids", children who live hand to mouth in public places, scrounging for food, security and affection.
Compared with the growing populations of street kids in some cities in south Asia and Latin America, the numbers in Vietnam are small. Estimates are shaky, but officials and non-governmental social workers say that 2000 Vietnamese children, mostly boys, are full-fledged street kids — completely independent youths who have no connection to their families. There are many more children who maintain some connections with parents or relatives but do not go to school; their number may be anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000.
Like many governments, the official Vietnamese response to street children has been to round them up occasionally and confine them in institutions. Experts have warned against this strategy, arguing that children who have sacrificed much for independence cannot be helped by depriving them of their freedom.
The government now is showing more interest in helping the children on their own terms, working with them on the street and trying to return them to their families, according to Timothy Bond, the Ho Chi Minh City representative of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss organisation that runs programs for street children here. But, he adds, "It is still a fact that the government continues to pick them off the street and put them in a closed institution".
One problem, he says, is that the liberalisation that has freed many parts of the economy has not reached the social service sector. The government has yet to pass a law legalising non-governmental organisations that could help street kids, and many officials remain suspicious of sanctioning such groups.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the children try to stay alive.
Ti says the boys beg for money, sometimes in tourist areas. When that doesn't work, they scavenge food from restaurants. They also get some help from a few charitable organisations, both Vietnamese and foreign, that operate in Saigon.
One of the boys in the group, Xuan, is small with wiry hair and bright eyes. He left the hill town of Dalat a year ago, he explains, because his parents died and his aunt didn't stop bigger boys from bullying him. He guesses he is 11 years old.
Is it any better here, on the street? "We protect him", answers Ti, as the other boys nod. They sit close together, almost on top of each other. During the course of an hour-long interview, the boys communicate as much by wanting to be touched as with their words.
Asked what they want to do when they grow up, a few talk about owning a small business. "I want some privacy", says Ti.