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Numbers of young people leaving home rising steadily

Nowhere to shelter for Korea's runaway teens

A youth shelter in Seoul A youth shelter in Seoul
  • Stephen Hong, Bucheon
  • Korea
  • December 18, 2012
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When Kim Eun-jin first ran away from home aged 13, she used to sleep in a car park or at a jjimjilbang, public bath-houses in South Korea with sleeping rooms, showers, saunas and other amenities.

Using a pseudonym, Kim – now 16 – talks of the troubles she has faced during the past three years as she eats a bowl of instant noodles with a fellow runaway in a convenience store in Bucheon, a satellite city of Seoul between the capital and the port of Incheon.

She left because of frequent beatings by her drunk father, she says.

There were not many opportunities to earn money – she tried unsuccessfully to find a part-time job, a major problem for young people who leave home.

Some 25 percent of female teen runaways, including Kim, make money by selling their bodies for sex, according to a survey by the Seoul city government.

After suffering sexual abuse at the hands of a boy she met on the internet who offered her a place to stay, Kim then joined a runaway ‘family’ of five other teenagers – including two girls – living in a motel, but with similar results.

At the time she thought “I now have a place to sleep,” says Kim.

But the boys forced her into sex, she adds, threatening that there would be no food or shelter if she didn’t comply, which she did.

Nowadays, she stays in a jjimjilbang with her other runaway friend.

“If my parents were to welcome me I would go back, but I don’t think they will,” says Kim with a bitter smile.

The World Community for Ending Poverty found in a July survey that just over half of all teen runaways want to return home or to school, mostly due to the hardship of everyday life in adult society.

Overall, the runaway population of those aged nine to 19 has grown nearly 60 percent to almost 30,000 in South Korea last year, according to the government.

But Sacred Sister Cecilia Choi Il-sim, director of Motungii Youth Shelter in Bucheon, estimates the numbers to be as many as 200,000 among a total of about 6.3 million teenagers in South Korea.

Key factors include an increasing breakdown in family life, climbing divorce and separation rates and the failure of parents to protect their children from the ever-rising demands of a competitive school system.

South Korea has 83 youth shelters in total, says Sr Cecilia, but “most runaways do not like a shelter because they do not want any interference.”

Still, Anglican Father Moses Yoo Nak-jun, former president of the Korea Youth Shelter Association, argues that shelters and outreach centers are a must, with the latter woefully inadequate in number at just 13 across the whole country.

They provide a place where runaway youths “can engage in education, rehabilitation training and other support programs,” he adds.

For Sr Choi, runaway teens represent a wider societal problem that is not easily fixed, especially without everyone pulling in the same direction.

“The government, the Church and society together have to make efforts to build healthy families in which parents listen to their children’s joys and difficulties,” she says.

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