Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April 2014, 11:39 GMT

Pakistan: Return of "lost" boys highlights the plight of street children

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 22 September 2008
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Pakistan: Return of "lost" boys highlights the plight of street children, 22 September 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48e085eac.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

KARACHI, 22 September 2008 (IRIN) - Asif, 16, was among 53 "lost" boys, aged between eight and 16, who boarded the bus on the morning of 16 August to return to his parents' house.

The bus and its four-day journey from the port city of Karachi to Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, were organised by social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi of the Edhi Foundation. The purpose was to reunite children who were lost or had run away with their parents.

Edhi, 85, accompanied the children. Asif, originally from Kamoke, a small town in Punjab, was among the 20 left who had yet to be united with their parents.

Before his parents were located, Asif, along with Mohammad Ali, 15, and Naushad, 12, stayed at an Edhi shelter in Lahore. "We started off on a high note but as the count got smaller, it became kind of lonely," said Asif.

Asif remembers he had four siblings and cannot wait to go home. "I think I will be able to recognise them once I see them," he says. But he was just nine when he got lost, in a market, and eventually found himself in Karachi.

"The kids had a very nice time. My reward was to hand them over to the parents," said Edhi. "Locating the homes was difficult as the kids were young when they got lost and many could not remember their villages."

Numbers rising

Social workers say Pakistan has a large population of runaway or lost kids, estimating their number at more than 70,000. Navaid Hasan Khan of Azad Foundation, an organisation working with street children, estimates there are between 13,000 and 15,000 in Karachi alone and the number is increasing. The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, estimates there are 10,000 in Karachi.

Many street children are at risk of physical and sexual abuse, child rights activists say, adding that tuberculosis (TB) and skin diseases are common. They usually live in gangs of 10 or more and sleep in filthy sewage pipes, open parks or bus stations.

Edhi's idea to arrange a bus journey for the street children to reunite them with their families received a lot of media attention. "It helped parents identify their children. Scores of parents would be awaiting our arrival to see if the bus had brought back their lost son. It saved us placing advertisements for these lost children," said Edhi.

However, after meeting the parents, Edhi concluded that all the lost children he had been looking after for four to five years belonged to very poor households comprising large families.

Many of the parents who took back the children "were ecstatic to see them, but they told us they will send them back to us as it means one less mouth to feed", he said.

"They said they know that at least with us they will get three square meals, clean clothes, a clean place to stay and the luxury of education they can ill afford," said Edhi.

Social workers cited many reasons for the children leaving home, including violence, disharmony among parents, financial worries, children put to work or not doing well in school. But, poverty was the underlying factor - placing thousands of children in jeopardy on the streets each year.

Some children did not want to go back to the parents permanently. "I want to stay in Lahore and study here," said Ali. He ran away from home at 11 and dreams of becoming an army officer. He believes if he goes to his parents, he will not get the opportunity to study.

"I worked as a domestic servant in a bungalow but my employers would beat me on the slightest pretext," he said. His father is a carpenter and he has eight siblings, of whom he is the second-eldest.

Naushad, from Sadiqabad in Punjab, said he wanted to meet his mother and nine siblings, adding: "I want to come back to Lahore and continue my studies here as there is no school in the village I belong to."

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