Ethiopia moves children from streets to shelters to slow coronavirus

Ethiopia moves children from streets to shelters to slow coronavirus

by Emeline Wuilbercq | Thomson Reuters Foundation

Thousands of street children in Addis Ababa are being moved to shelters as COVID-19 cases soar in the east African nation

Coronavirus is changing the world in unprecedented ways. Subscribe here for a daily briefing on how this global crisis is affecting cities, technology, approaches to climate change, and the lives of vulnerable people.

By Emeline Wuilbercq

ADDIS ABABA, June 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Olana Abdulsewud was woken by the police in Addis Ababa early one morning in March, the Ethiopian teenager was relieved.

Begging to survive on the streets had become increasingly tough for Olana, one of an estimated 10,000 homeless children in Ethiopia’s capital, since the arrival of the new coronavirus.

“As soon as the first case was registered, we were worried because people started to avoid us,” the 17-year-old said.

Authorities in Addis started rounding up street children in March to prevent them from contracting and spreading the virus – so far more than 4,100 have been placed in shelters – and the drive is being ramped up as coronavirus cases rise nationwide.

Ethiopia has recorded at least 2,670 cases and 40 deaths, and its caseload has more than doubled since the start of June.

“I was willing (to go to a shelter) because I wanted to save myself from the coronavirus,” Olana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from a shelter in the southern city of Hawassa. “I was really afraid.”

Despite rapid growth in the past decade, inequality is stark in Ethiopia where a growing number of children have been driven from their homes – by poverty or neglect – and ended up begging or selling wares to survive life on the streets, charities said.

Some are subjected to labour exploitation and sexual abuse; others become addicted to sniffing glue or drugs such as khat.

About 16 million children aged between 5 and 17 are engaged in child labour across Ethiopia, a 2018 national survey found.

Street children who are taken to shelters by the authorities or charities receive food, clothes, healthcare and counseling. They tend to stay for between three and six months before being reunited with their relatives or returned to their communities.

“(Many) have to recover from drug (addiction) and psychosocial problems,” said Nigat Kebede, a director at the Elshadai Relief and Development Association that runs seven shelters for vulnerable people, including the one in Hawassa.

Most street children come from rural areas and have at least one living parent, yet family reunification efforts have been put on hold due to the pandemic, said Mulugeta Tefera, a civil servant who leads the Labor and Social Affairs Bureau in Addis.

In the long term, the government plans to create more job opportunities for children back home, Mulugeta said, so they do not return to the streets in Addis where they are prey to abuse.