Updated: October 27, 2014 05:39 PM GMT
Many homeless children choose to stay on the streets of Manila rather than in government shelters, where rights groups say detainees are subject to abuse and maltreatment (Photo by Eloisa Lopez)
In the late afternoon, 15-year-old Jason starts his search for a place to spend the night somewhere in Manila’s congested streets.
It’s a daily ritual for Jason, who says his family was made homeless when the city government ordered the demolition of the slum neighborhood they called home. Soon after, his mother died of a heart attack and his father left him to survive on his own.
According to the Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development, there were at least 246,000 street children in the country in 2012, including more than 11,000 in Manila alone. Most of them are boys who were abandoned by their families, or who choose to stay in the streets even if they have relatives.
But despite the difficult life, it’s one that boys like Jason prefer to the government alternative: detention in controversial centers for homeless people that rights groups claim are rife with abuse and maltreatment.
For years now, authorities have been rounding up "families at risk," many of them children, in attempts to cleanse urban centers, particularly the capital, of perceived eyesores.
In Manila, the children who are "rescued" during nightly patrols end up in the Reception and Action Center (RAC), a facility that is supposed to provide temporary shelter for the homeless.
"We will run to avoid the night patrol," said Jason.
He says he has been “rescued” by the RAC patrols on several occasions and now he vows to never return to the facility, which consists of two dilapidated buildings painted a fading yellow and guarded by a rusty metal gate.
During a recent two-month detention, he says, he suffered daily beatings from people he referred to as “mommies” — the children’s supposed guardians.
"They would hit us with wooden sticks and force us to kneel on salt and chili," Jason said. "They would hit us with a frying pan to wake us up in the morning."
Earlier this month, the Asian Human Rights Commission released a photo of a severely malnourished and naked boy lying on the floor of Manila’s RAC. In an October 22 statement, the group accused the Manila City government of “outright neglect” at the RAC. The group said the boy was one of about 270 people — mostly children — held in “protective custody” at the facility.
"This type of neglect has led to further deterioration of abysmal conditions — including torture, inhuman treatment and food deprivation resulting in severe malnutrition — the children are forced to suffer while held there on dubious grounds," the statement read.
However, local officials strongly denied the allegations.
“We do not maltreat children,” Dr Sheilah Lacuna-Pangan, officer-in-charge of Manila's social welfare office, told ucanews.com.
She said the boy depicted in the photo arrived at the center in his malnourished state.
“It just so happened he was already under our care when he was spotted,” Lacuna-Pangan said.
With an estimated 100 “rescues” per night, she said the center cannot provide all the services staff would like.
"It’s very hard," she said. "We let them eat, bathe and sleep. We provide their basic needs. We let them stay for three to five days until we contact their family, to whom we could reunite them, but after a week or so, we see them back again.”
Lacuna-Pangan acknowledged the center has its problems, but torture is not one of them, she stressed.
"The food supply is enough but the building is not conducive to be a temporary shelter anymore," she told ucanews.com.
Catherine Scerri of the non-government organization Bahay Tuluyan, however, said that government centers "practice inappropriate services" that tend to neglect and maltreat children instead of helping them.
“The government’s concept of 'rescue' seems more like 'arrest,'" Scerri told ucanews.com.
In February this year, Bahay Tuluyan appealed to Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and urged the city to clean up the facility.
In March, the Asian Legal Resource Centre asked the UN Human Rights Council during its 25th session in Geneva to take immediate action to address allegations of torture and violence against children in the Philippines.
Back on the streets of Manila, Jason has found a place to rest for the night. He’ll be sleeping on a bench in the capital’s Luneta Park.
His 11-year-old friend, Jan, says he also prefers sleeping outdoors to staying in the city’s homeless center.
“The room was always locked,” he said. “We were like prisoners.”